A battle for women in a changing Colorado

Kathy Hanak

(CBS News) GREENWOOD VILLAGE, Colorado - It's not anger that Kathy Hanak articulates when you ask her opinion of the two men vying to spend the next four years trying to fix an economy that has yet to recover from the crisis which began in 2008. It's something worse: Futility.

"I don't really like any of them. And I don't really think anything's going to change," she said. "Is that pessimistic? I don't know. It kind of is, you know? I'm just kind of apathetic. I don't really think that one person's vote is going to count for anything."

Hanak is sitting inside Jumpstreet, an indoor trampoline park in this wealthy Denver suburb where preteen boys bounce off rubberized walls as their parents get a few minutes of relative peace. A teacher with two kids, Hanak hasn't been particularly impressed with President Obama. She says his education initiatives have just been "throwing money at the same old problems," and she attributes the capture of Osama bin Laden to a presidential attempt to get good press. But mostly, she's just given up on the federal government as a positive force in her life.

"I just feel like, geez, it doesn't really matter what I do or say," said Hanak. "It's going to be what it's going to be. I just focus on my kids."

Down the road in Littleton, a woman named Kate expressed much the same frustration. Kate, who did not want to give her last name for fear of angering her employer, was "downsized," as she put it, three times after the crisis hit. After 20 years in a solid job in sales, she found herself with no health insurance and working three part-time jobs - including one where she had to unload semi trucks and work in the produce department at a grocery store.

"I'm a hard worker. I just don't get it," she said.

Kate, who is 48-years-old, makes $20,000 less now than she did at the peak of her career. She has her issues with Mr. Obama as well - the health care law was "jammed down our throat point blank," and the stimulus package was "a short-term fix" that didn't address the nation's long term problems. But she doesn't blame him for where things stand now.

Swing State Stories bug
CBS News

"You know, I don't know who the hell to blame to be honest with you," she said. "And I don't really want to place the blame. I want it fixed."

At the moment, she says, she really doesn't care who wins in November.

"I don't think anybody knows how to fix it. I really don't," she said, casting her eyes down the main street in Littleton's historic downtown. "I don't think there's any right answer."

More from this series: In Nevada, Obama must overcome miserable economy

Littleton and Greenwood Village are located in Arapahoe County, a once solidly Republican area that has become perhaps the best bellwether in this hotly-contested swing state. Mr. Obama won Arapahoe by 12 points in 2008, helping him become only the second Democrat since 1964 to take Colorado. His nine-point win was due in large part to the support of women, who vote in greater numbers than men and who have shown themselves to be far less tethered to a particular party. It is these suburban women that both state parties say will win or lose them the election, which is why First Lady Michelle Obama will be here in Arapahoe on Wednesday to campaign for her husband's re-election.

The demographic trends in Colorado would seem to favor the president: There has been an "infusion" of new voters in the Denver area over the past decade, says University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket, mostly from "groups that trend more Democratic" - among them Latinos and transplants from the West Coast who come to the region for the lifestyle it offers. The Census department reports that between 2000 and 2010, Colorado's population increased nearly 17 percent, with that growth clustered in the Denver area. (Population in the nation as a whole grew 9.7 percent during the decade.)

Yet party registration shows just how split the bellwether Arapahoe County remains: There are approximately 120,000 Democrats and 114,000 Republicans registered in the county, with an additional 30 percent identifying as independent. The key to victory with swing voters here, political scientists and state party officials say, is appealing to moderates and making sure not to alienate women. The importance of the latter was driven home by the failed 2010 campaign of Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck, who took a strong stance against abortion rights and asked voters to back him in the primary because unlike his rival, "I do not wear high heels."

Rick Palacio, the chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, said one of his primary goals is to "ensure that suburban women understand the extreme policies that Mitt Romney and Republicans are pushing." Palacio described the question of "who is on the side of women" as an entree to talk to them about jobs and the economy.

But painting Romney as an opponent of women will be harder than it might have been had the GOP nominated another candidate.

"Romney may not have some of the issues there that someone like Rick Santorum has, but members of Romney's party have taken prominent stands on things ranging from abortion to birth control to other things that might turn off some moderate-minded women," said Masket.

Back at Jumpstreet, the heterogeneity of the female Arapahoe electorate was on full display. One mother from Aurora, who refused to give her name, said flatly that "Obama hasn't done anything for the country." She said she doesn't "know much about Romney yet," but it doesn't matter - she'll be voting against the incumbent.

"I don't even know if Obama has a U.S. citizen birth certificate," she said as her daughter came over and offered a handful of candy and a shy smile. "Does that make sense? I know he hasn't served. I think he's just out there for the public status."

Twenty feet away, a woman named Audra described her struggles over the past three years, chief among them having to work a "dead end" restaurant job to support her kids. She backed Mr. Obama four years ago, and finds Romney "too rigid" to earn her vote, but she isn't sure if she's going to vote for the president again.

It's not that she blames the president for the state of the economy - it's that "I just think this country needs a change, and I don't know what the answer is."

"For someone who is willing to work hard, benefits and forty grand a year shouldn't be a far off dream," she said.

The College Vote

When President Obama came to the liberal college town of Boulder in April to fire up the young voters, he stopped for a pizza at The Sink, a restaurant just off campus that now boasts a cardboard cutout of the president in front of a dingy wall by the entrance.

(above, watch students and others in Boulder sound off on President Obama)

Mr. Obama won 73 percent of the vote in Boulder County in 2008, where high turnout among enthusiastic first-time voters helped offset Republican dominance in staunchly conservative Colorado Springs and the Eastern Planes. There are only nine electoral votes up for grabs in Colorado, but both parties recognize that in a close election - and nobody expects otherwise - that could be enough to decide the presidency.

The president was received rapturously in April by the students here, who waited in line for hours to hear him discuss his efforts to keep student loan interest rates from rising and ease post-college debt. (The Obama campaign is running ads in the state hammering home the point.) Yet it remains an open question whether young people here and elsewhere in the state will show up for the president in the numbers they did four years ago.

"Obama was able to achieve a really remarkable youth following back in 2008, and as far as people my age go, that kind of new voter, early 20s type of thing, people really wanted to have the first African-American president," said 23-year-old former Boulder student Peter Wynn, who was seated outside a cafe on University Hill. "And there was a big kind of culture movement behind it too - there were Obama t-shirts, there were all that kind of stuff that you don't see often for candidates like that."

Wynn plans to vote for Mr. Obama, though he has reservations.