Salena Zito

LAIRD, Colo. – This small Great Plains town is the terminus of a journey across the Rocky Mountain State on U.S. 34, greeting travelers from Nebraska and bidding farewell to Coloradoans.

On either side of the highway stand two slightly oversized “Romney for President” signs.

In the distance, in a town boasting 47 people, a stone octagonal house sits forlornly, its former glory faded by neglect and the elements.

This highway and U.S. 36, passing through Jefferson and Arapahoe counties, give way to a state not at all like the one often envisioned, politically or economically, from afar.

The 479 miles of rural, suburban and patches of urban Colorado reveal many Democrats with an interesting lack of enthusiasm for President Barack Obama, despite all of the built-in support and demographic advantages at his fingertips.

Only one homemade sign for his re-election was seen along either well-traveled highway.

Exactly 270 electoral votes are needed to win the presidency. And that win may well come down to Colorado – specifically, Jefferson and Arapahoe counties.

Both are at the center of the 7th U.S. Congressional District race between incumbent Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat, and his challenger, Republican Joe Coors.

If businessman Coors has a good election night on Nov. 6, then so will Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, not only in Colorado but likely nationwide.

Colorado is looking like a state that is the national average, perhaps a tick or two rightward, according to Sean Trende, a savvy number-cruncher and Princeton-trained political scientist for the website RealClearPolitics.

“So if Romney is winning Colorado, it probably means he is headed for a decent night,” Trende said of the relatively new electoral trend of a Western state signaling a presidential win.

If Romney wins here comfortably, that probably means a national win on the scale of George Bush in 2004, or even Obama in 2008, Trende said.

Right now, he said, Colorado’s numbers look pretty good for Romney: “We have him up a half-point in the RCP Average, with the president down to about 47 percent of the vote. That’s not a great position for the president to be in.”

The Democrats’ traditional map in Colorado looks like a “C,” Trende explained, “starting with ‘Old Mexico’ in the south, swinging through the ski areas in the west, and then coming into Boulder, Denver and the suburbs.

“The latter are the key battleground in the state. If Romney runs well in Jefferson and Arapahoe counties, it is over. If Coors is running strong against Perlmutter, the state won’t be close.”

The House race at the center of the presidential election has Coors up 45-to-36, with 55 percent of the district favoring repeal of Obamacare.

Still, Coors is being hit with ads by Perlmutter, by the Democrats’ House Majority PAC and by AFSCME, the government-workers union.

Colorado is the face of the new West and a new political power. Known for its picturesque mountains and ski resorts, it also is home to enormous energy resources – gas, oil, coal – as well as to aerospace-manufacturing and health-care businesses.

Jobs associated with the oil-and-gas boom are natural votes for Romney. And, although he lags behind with Colorado’s many Hispanic voters, interviews with young people across the state showed strong support for him.

Interview after interview here also revealed that Obama’s problem in Colorado, among Democrats who voted for him in 2008, is enthusiasm: About one-third will “probably still vote for him” (a line heard over and over), one-third will go for Romney, and the final third will just stay home.

U.S. 34 begins hundreds of miles to the west of here and, for part of its way, has Rocky Mountain National Park as a stunning backdrop – making it the highest paved highway in the country. It peaks at an elevation of 12,183 feet, so high up that snow keeps it closed in the park for much of the year; long wooden poles line its switchbacks, so summer road crews know where to go for the annual snow-clearing.

All along its twisting route – as on Colorado’s other rural byways, in its neighborhoods and Main Street shop-windows, and even adorning some pretty beat-up cars – you see plenty of Romney-Ryan campaign signs.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.