- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2008

DENVER# | The last three Coloradans to hold this year’s open Senate seat could be described as variations on a Republican theme: the exceedingly conservative Bill Armstrong, the rather conservative Hank Brown and the dependably conservative Wayne Allard.

It’s hard to imagine putting any modifier in front of “conservative” to describe Mark Udall, unless it’s “not.” Yet the Democratic congressman has staked a claim as the early front-runner in the race to succeed those bastions of Colorado Republicanism.

At a Democratic volunteer rally Saturday, Mr. Udall, wearing the traditional Western campaign ensemble of jeans, cowboy boots and a hefty silver belt buckle, fired up the party’s ground troops by telling them that “as Colorado goes, so goes the nation.”

“Traditional conservative values are reflected more by Democrats now in the West than Republicans,” Mr. Udall said later. “There’s a new kind of conservatism, particularly the ‘live and let live’ approach to people’s personal lives.”

His opponent, former Republican Rep. Bob Schaffer, may roll his eyes at his opponent’s attempt to don the conservative mantle, but there’s little doubt that Democrats such as Mr. Udall have broadened their appeal among traditionally right-leaning Western voters.

In a year full of ominous harbingers for Republicans, chalk up another bummer: The party’s grip on the Rocky Mountain West is slipping. Democrats are poised to make real gains here in November, thanks to savvy candidate selection, a few ill-timed Republican scandals and a national pro-Democratic tide.

“There’s just been a tremendous amount of growth. All these states are attracting people from California and the Midwest, and these people don’t have any particular ties to the state Republican or Democratic Party,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli.

“They tend to be independent, and if you have a reasonably attractive candidate and a national trend for the Democrats, there’s no reason you can’t elect Democrats,” he said.

In 2004, all of the eight inner-mountain states broke for President Bush. This year, three of those - Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico - are seen as tossups ripe for the picking by the Obama campaign.

On the Senate side, Republicans in Colorado, New Mexico and Idaho are grappling with stiff challenges for seats previously occupied by Republicans, while only one Western Democratic senator, hardy Montana perennial Max Baucus, faces re-election.

In some states, Republicans are just plain snakebit: In Wyoming, the untimely death of Sen. Craig Thomas in 2007 means that both Republicans, Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, go before the voters in November.

Not all the news for Republicans is gloomy. Arizona might have been considered in play for the presidential race were it not Republican Sen. John McCain’s home state. Those Arizona ties also could help him in neighboring Colorado and Nevada.

Nobody’s confusing the Rockies with the Catskills, either. The region continues to vie with the South as the nation’s most conservative, and Mr. McCain would have to punch more than one photographer to jeopardize his lead in states such as Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

Sen. Barack Obama inadvertently lent Western Republicans a hand with his remark about rural voters turning to religion and guns in bitterness over a weak economy.

“Democrats are almost taking Colorado for granted,” said Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams, “[but] rural voters across the Rocky Mountain West are going to be reluctant to vote for someone who has such a disparaging view of rural America.”

He also noted that every Republican presidential candidate since 1964 who wasn’t running in a field with Ross Perot has won Colorado, even when Democrats were piling up gubernatorial and Senate victories.

“I’m just so amused by this Democratic rhetoric that, ‘Oh, for the first time, we’re competitive in the West,’” Mr. Wadhams said. “Democrats have been very competitive in Colorado for years, and during that time, Republicans won every presidential election except in 1992. That’s why I think McCain will carry Colorado and the West.”

Western Democrats have benefited from several trends. The heated primary battle between presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Obama helped drum up interest among independent voters, some of whom registered as Democrats so they could vote in the primary races.

In Nevada, for example, state Democrats held same-day registration for the Jan. 19 caucuses. The result was that Democratic voters surpassed Republicans for the first time in some 15 years, said state party Deputy Executive Director Kirsten Searer.

Registered Democrats number 449,002, while Republicans lag behind with 398,229, according to April figures from the Nevada secretary of state.

“We’re a swing state, and in statewide races, we tend to swing more Republican. But we’ve never had a voter-registration edge close to what we have now,” Miss Searer said. “The numbers are really looking good.”

Another factor that could drag down Republicans is character. In Nevada, Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons’ much-publicized troubles include a federal corruption probe, a spat with a cocktail waitress and, most recently, an ugly divorce fight.

“In the minds of Nevadans, the Republican brand has taken a huge hit,” Miss Searer said. “I can’t imagine McCain campaigning with Gibbons.”

In Idaho, Republican Sen. Larry Craig’s run-in with the law at a Minneapolis airport bathroom has given Democrats a rare opening in the Republican-dominated state.

Former Democratic Rep. Larry LaRocco, who’s running against Republican Lt. Gov. Jim Risch for the seat being vacated by Mr. Craig, said Idaho Democrats may never have a better opportunity than this year.

“The demographics, the economics of Idaho have changed dramatically. We’ve had tremendous growth. This isn’t your grandfather’s Idaho,” Mr. LaRocco said. “The days of appealing to people on pure ideology are over.”

Democrats also have benefited from better recruitment. Instead of running candidates who look more at home on an Eastern college campus than a turkey shoot, the party has sought out ranchers, hunters and law enforcement officials.

In Montana, Gov. Brian Schweitzer is running for re-election on the same good-ol’-boy-who-happens-to-be-a-Democrat platform that won him the 2004 race.

“If you look at Montana and the Democratic strategy in general, they’re going out of their way to nominate very marginal Democrats in terms of ideology,” Mr. Ciruli said. “These Democrats are comfortable with guns and shaking their fist at the Washington establishment.”

Colorado Democrats won a tight 2004 Senate contest with Ken Salazar, the state’s attorney general and a fifth-generation rancher and farmer. Two years later, former Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter won the gubernatorial race on a law-and-order platform.

This year, Democratic Rep. Tom Udall, who’s running for the New Mexico seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, is showcasing his record fighting drunken driving as the state’s attorney general even though he left that office 10 years ago.

His cousin Mark Udall, the Colorado Senate candidate, noted with pride that states with Democratic governors now form an unbroken trail from Mexico to Canada.

“That’s not a fluke,” Mr. Udall said. “That’s because we’re delivering.”

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