updated 7/16/2008 5:15:32 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:15:32

At the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado has also been at the front edge of economic, cultural and political change. Colorado is an island of nearly 5 million people surrounded by the sea of the Great Plains and the ramparts of the Rockies. With vistas of vast emptiness, it is mostly an urban state: More than half its people live in metropolitan Denver and four-fifths in the urban strip paralleling the Front Range, where the Rockies rise suddenly from the mile-high plateau. And its very ruggedness is inviting more settlement. While the eastern plains continue to lose population, the valley-crevices between the mountains are being filled with second-home condominiums and ranchettes and the rolling land on three sides of metro Denver is being platted into subdivisions.

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Colorado started off with a boom, and its recent history has been punctuated by booms—and then by pauses of moderate growth. The first boom came with the discovery of gold and silver in the Rockies. Evidence of this mining boom still can be seen in the opera houses and storefronts of Cripple Creek and Central City, Aspen and Telluride, built when Denver was just a village on the creek that is the South Platte River. Then Denver grew, as a meatpacking, banking and manufacturing center, and also as the state capital and regional headquarters of the federal government. After that came the boom of the high-energy-price 1970s, when the Denver skyline sprouted new buildings overlooking the Capitol’s golden dome and entrepreneurs built ever more ski resorts and year-round mountain condominiums. Colorado’s economy sagged during the low-energy-price 1980s but, based more on telecommunications and high-tech than energy, boomed again in the 1990s. The visible signs of this boom are still all around—in the skyscrapers of downtown Denver, bearing at various times, the names of Qwest and TCI and other telecommunications and high-tech companies; in the retro Coors Field baseball park set amid Denver’s LoDo, where warehouses have been renovated into restaurants and clubs; in the startling architecture of the Denver International Airport far out in the plains; in the sprawling Denver Tech Center south of the city; in the fast-growing tracts of subdivisions and office parks in Douglas County south of Denver, the fastest-growing American county from 1990 to 2003. Colorado’s economy grew robustly in the 1990s and the state attracted well-educated newcomers from around the country, with many from California; it ranked number one in high-tech workers per capita and third in venture capital financing per capita.

In 2001 and 2002 Colorado painfully shed high-tech jobs, and since then it has settled back to moderate growth. Although it ranks among the top states in economic development and venture capital, with high salaries and low unemployment, it has not been attracting residents from the rest of the United States and has attracted far fewer immigrants than Arizona or Nevada. With its relatively young and highly educated population and its stunning environment, Colorado is also the leanest state, with the lowest percentage of obesity, and arguably the healthiest. In the mile high (or more) air, Coloradans like to ride, jog, bike and, of course, ski. There are bike paths not only in Denver but also in the mountains and Boulder is a national center for bungee jumping, mountain biking, snowshoe running and hot air ballooning.

Colorado has been reshaped, economically and politically, by its successive waves of new residents. The conservative and boosterish Colorado of the 1960s was transformed by a wave of liberal young migrants in the 1970s who swept the state’s politics by calling for environmental protections and slow growth and eventually reached the national stage—slow-growth Governor Dick Lamm, Senator Gary Hart, Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, Congressman Tim Wirth. Democrats held the governorship for 24 years but Republicans held the legislature. Then, in the 1990s, a new wave of migrants—tech-savvy, family-oriented cultural conservatives looking for an environment to prosper—moved Colorado politics to the right. In the 1990s, public school enrollment rose 14%, while private school enrollment was up 33% and the number of home-schooled children tripled. If the spirit of the 1970s newcomers was embodied in Boulder, with its pedestrian mall, outdoor sports shops and vegetarian restaurants, dominated politically by environmentalist liberals, the spirit of the 1990s newcomers was embodied in Colorado Springs, the home of the Air Force Academy, Fort Carson and Focus on the Family, and dominated politically by religious and family-oriented conservatives. Both of these politically very different communities have some reason to believe that they exemplify the state; elections here can be seen as political contests to determine which one does.

But the newcomers’ influence seems to ebb. The victories of the liberal Democrats in the 1970s, starting with the 1972 referendum blocking the Winter Olympics from Denver, were followed by a long period where Republicans held control of the legislature and the congressional delegation. And the victories of the conservative Republicans in the 1990s, starting with the 1990 referendum imposing term limits and the 1992 “Tabor” amendment holding down state spending and requiring referenda to raise taxes, have been followed by a resurgence of the Democratic party, which now holds the governorship and both houses of the legislature, a majority in the U.S. House delegation and one Senate seat—and is optimistic about capturing the other one in 2008. Earlier in the decade, Colorado seemed solidly Republican. George W. Bush carried the state 51%-42% in 2000 and in 2002 Governor Bill Owens, elected narrowly in 1998, was reelected 63%-34% and Senator Wayne Allard, after trailing in many polls, won 51%-46%. Republicans retained the state House, regained a majority in the state Senate and picked up Colorado’s new 7th Congressional District, designed to be competitive for both parties, by 121 votes. Then Colorado Democrats went on the offensive. Heiress Patricia Stryker and tech millionaire Tim Gill spent large sums on the 2004 elections, backing Democratic candidates in carefully chosen districts; this gave Democrats control of the state Senate 18–17. A budget crisis was forced by Amendment 23, put on the 2000 ballot by teachers’ unions and approved 53%-47%, which required that the state education budget increase by the rate of inflation, and by big transportation spending programs backed by Owens. This led Owens to join the Democrats in fall 2005 in support of Referendum C, which suspended the Tabor rules, denying taxpayers the refunds it would have required and pumping the money into state government. Many conservative Republicans opposed this, but with the support of most media outlets and business leaders it passed 52%-48%, running ahead in many normally Republican affluent suburbs and trailing in some low-income Democratic areas.

At the same time, demographic trends seemed to be favoring Democrats. John Kerry’s campaign made Colorado a target state for most of the 2004 campaign and so did the Bush campaign. Democrats registered and turned out the anti-Bush vote in Denver, Boulder and the ski resorts—Telluride, Aspen, Vail, Crested Butte, Steamboat Springs, all full of liberal-minded trustfunders—and ran just about even in the close-in Denver suburbs. This was not enough to put Kerry over the top: Bush carried the state by the reduced margin of 52%-47%, but Kerry’s increase over the Gore percentage was his highest in all but three other mountainous states (Alaska, Montana, Vermont). Democrats were even more successful at the state level. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (who switched to the Republican party in 1995) announced he would not seek reelection in March 2004, and Democrats united around moderate Attorney General Ken Salazar while Republicans had a divisive primary between former Congressman Bob Schaffer and beer scion Pete Coors. In November Salazar beat Coors 51%-47%. In addition, Salazar’s brother John won the 3d District House seat vacated by Republican Scott McInnis—one of only two open Republican seats nationally captured by Democrats in 2004. And Democrats won control of both houses of the legislature, with help from a Democratic redistricting plan; Republicans actually won more popular votes in state House races.

In 2006 Democrats swept the board. Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter, a moderate who opposed abortion, beat Congressman Bob Beauprez for governor by a whopping 57%-40% margin. Ritter carried metro Denver 62%-35% and won in most of the state except Colorado Springs, the eastern plains and the mining area around Grand Junction. Beauprez’s suburban Denver House seat, designed to be evenly divided between the parties, was swept by Democrat Ed Perlmutter, and Republican Marilyn Musgrave came within 3% of losing her hitherto safe House seat. Democratic margins in the legislature were dramatically increased. Beauprez warned that Democratic control would mean that unions and trial lawyers would be in charge, and raised the familiar conservative issues of same-sex marriage, gun control and immigration. Ritter campaigned as a moderate and said, “The people of this state want problem-solvers who are pragmatic and who won’t allow government to be polarized.” In celebration of these victories and in anticipation of more—Republican Senator Wayne Allard announced he would retire as promised in 2008 and Democratic Congressman Mark Udall was an early frontrunner for the seat—the Democratic National Committee chose to hold its 2008 national convention in Denver. National Chairman Howard Dean said the decision was a sign that Democrats could make critical breakthroughs in the West. The omens were good, but precedent was unnerving. Democrats held their national convention in Denver once before, 100 years ago in 1908, and there nominated William Jennings Bryan for the third time. In November he carried Colorado and Nevada (New Mexico and Arizona weren’t states yet) plus the then Solid South, but lost nationally 52%-43% to William Howard Taft.

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