LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Officially, Sen. Barack Obama traveled to this desert city Monday for a Memorial Day address. He stood against the backdrop of the Organ Mountains and talked about honoring veterans, but his campaign aides came here believing they could do something bigger: win back the Mountain West from Republicans.
The underlying goal of Obama’s trip this week through New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado is to lay claim to a region that Obama views as one of his best opportunities to pick off states in November.
“We want to send a message now that we are going to go after them, and I expect to win them,” Obama told reporters after laying a wreath at a veterans’ memorial.
President Bush picked up 19 electoral votes across these three states — the margin by which Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry fell short in the Electoral College in 2004. He edged out Kerry by 5 percentage points in Colorado, 2 points in Nevada and less than 1 point in New Mexico. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Kerry lost because he ignored places like rural Nevada.
Four years later, Democrats say they have learned their lesson. Party leaders bumped Nevada to the front of the primary calendar and chose Denver to host the convention.
“If we win these three states, plus the traditional Democratic base, he is president,” New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said of Obama, in an interview Monday. “If John Kerry had won these three states and lost Ohio as he did, he would’ve been president. To ignore the Mountain West is perilous.”
The states sit in Obama’s top tier of potential pickups, aides say, along with Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Iowa. It is in these states that Obama’s promise of building a broader electoral map will be put to the test.
Demographics, political trend lines and economic conditions help explain why Democratic strategists see the region as favorable terrain this year. After a vigorous attempt by Bush to appeal to Hispanics, who backed him with 40 percent of their vote in 2004, the anti-immigration bills pushed by Republican congressional leaders since then have alienated many in this voting bloc. Colorado has been trending Democratic, Nevada has been hit hard by the housing foreclosure crisis and New Mexico has swung between the parties in the past two presidential elections.
Obama will face a challenge from Sen. John McCain, who has represented Arizona for more than 20 years and took a lead until last year on comprehensive immigration reform, which won him a following among Hispanic voters.
Both candidates campaigned Monday in New Mexico, where both claimed strength in the region.
“I believe as a Western senator I understand the issues, the challenges of the future for these ... states, whether it be land, water, Native American issues, preservation, environmental issues,” McCain said in an interview with The Associated Press.
He said his positions on a number of issues — “pro-life, pro-military, pro-small business” and immigration — “will allow me to receive the consideration of the Hispanic voter.”
“I've got my work cut out for me. There's a strong economic headwind. There's a brand problem of Republicans. I understand those challenges, and I am sure I can meet them and I can win,” McCain said.
Obama told reporters he was “absolutely confident” that he would do well in the West because the voters are “independent-minded and are gonna look at whether or not over the last eight years the country is better off under Republican rule. And I think they are going to conclude they are not.”
Polls released last week by Rasmussen Reports found Obama beating McCain in Colorado, 48 percent to 42 percent, and in New Mexico, 50 percent to 41 percent. McCain held the edge in Nevada, 46 percent to 40 percent.
Bush lost New Mexico by 366 votes in 2000,and won it four years later by only 6,000 votes.
Nevada has proved similarly competitive, with Bush winning the state both times by less than four percentage points.
In Colorado, Bush’s margin of nine percentage points in 2000 dipped to five points in 2004. Democrats have since won a Senate seat, the governor’s office, two congressional districts and control of the state legislature.
“Democrats have been on a roll,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report who views Colorado as Obama’s best opportunity of the three states.
The first order of business, however, for Obama is building deeper ties with Hispanic voters, who routinely favored Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton through the primary season.
Obama, an unknown on the national stage until 2004, had two problems at the outset, Richardson said. Hispanics were not familiar with him, and the Clintons had built strong support within the community over the years.
“Obama clearly has work to do,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a progressive think tank and advocacy group that has studied immigration and the Hispanic vote.
But Rosenberg and Democratic strategists say, despite the slow start, the Illinois senator will win over the constituency, if only because the issue environment favors him. Hispanic voters, like other demographic groups, feel the effects of the economic downturn and have turned against the war, they say.
Obama advisers are mapping out a strategy that targets Hispanics, who make up 37 percent of the eligible electorate in New Mexico and 12 percent in Colorado and Nevada, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. It will include exposure in the Spanish-language media, paid advertisements, heavy campaigning in Hispanic areas, registering Hispanic voters and sending well-known Latino leaders such as Richardson out on the trail.
More fluency in Spanish would also help, Richardson added.
“He just cut an ad in Puerto Rico that is very passable Spanish,” Richardson said. “He practiced it intensively. He is getting there.”