Colorado in play, but for how long?

John Kerry shakes hands with supporters after his speech in Aurora, Colo., on Friday, Sept. 17.David Zalubowski / AP
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In the remaining weeks of the campaign, as both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry allocate their time and travel, one crucial question will be: Will Kerry make a play for the Mountain West trio of Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado, which together have 19 electoral votes?

Or given the time and energy needed to fly from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountain States, in the final weeks will Kerry choose to bet primarily on the trio of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio and downgrade his effort in the Mountain West?

The electoral numbers alone suggest why Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico might not be in play by the final week of the campaign, if President Bush continues to be ahead in most of the crucial states.

The Pennsylvania-Wisconsin-Ohio trio, where polls show Kerry either trailing Bush or tied, have a total of 51 electoral votes, making them more than twice as valuable as Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado.

But for the moment, Colorado, a state Bush won in 2000 by 145,000 votes, is in play.

Sue Casey, the state director for the Kerry campaign in Colorado, said the campaign is currently running a moderate TV ad buy in three of the state’s media markets, Grand Junction, Colorado Springs and Denver, after a period of being off the air.

She said the ad buy is in the range of 700 gross ratings points. This is the equivalent of 100 percent of TV households in these media markets viewing the spot, on average, seven times.

But the key factor, Casey said, is personal visits to Colorado by Kerry. “I’m hoping for a lot, but those decisions get made almost day by day,” she said.

“Keep an eye out if he actually comes here” because, partly due to the travel and preparation demands of the three scheduled debates with Bush, “it will be a challenge to get him here. Then you’ll really know what we’re thinking about our chances” to carry Colorado.

“That reflects more the strategy of the campaign more than anything. So if you see Dick Cheney coming to the state in the next two weeks, if you see John Kerry coming to the state in the next two weeks, that will tell you more about how competitive the state is than anything else.” Shortly after Casey's comment, the Bush-Cheney campaign scheduled the vice president and his wife, Lynne, to attend a debate-watching party in Denver on Thursday.

Referring to Kerry, vice presidential candidate John Edwards, and their spouses, Casey said, “Where those four travel, put dots, and you can tell where we’re trying to win.”

Kerry was in Denver on Sept. 17; Bush campaigned in Greenwood Village, Colo., on Sept. 14.

GOP get-out-the-vote push
The Republicans aren’t taking the state for granted.

Bush has been running TV ads in the state in recent weeks. Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ted Halaby said the GOP will deploy more than 4,000 volunteers in the 96 hours before Election Day to urge Bush supporters to vote. “They’ve already been walking in over 800 precincts and have made thousands of telephone calls. Our effort will be substantially greater this time than it was two years ago.”

In 2002, an extraordinary Republican get-out-the-vote push helped lift Sen. Wayne Allard to a second term. In a race that polls had shown tied only a few days before Election Day, Allard won by nearly 70,000 votes.

Despite Colorado being a state that elected the staunchly conservative Allard twice, the Kerry campaign decided in the spring to make a play for it.

Casey said in the spring that the campaign invested $1 million in TV ad buys. “A million dollars in Colorado is pretty good,” she noted. “John Kerry had three trips here in a span of three weeks,” including a trip on the way to the Democratic National Convention and on the way out from the convention, when Kerry took a train trip through the towns of Lamar and La Junta in southeastern Colorado where no presidential candidate had toured since Harry Truman.

“In the period right after that, some of the polling here had us dead-even,” Casey recalled. “In a state where’s there’s an edge of 180,000 registered Republicans, that is huge and it sent a signal that something very important was going on.”

Salazar effect?
“The combination of campaigns and candidates is another reason why we are so optimistic," she said. Democratic Senate candidate and state Attorney General Ken Salazar “is an extraordinarily good candidate, the only Democrat who has won statewide in a long time,” she said.

Salazar is running for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat-turned-Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

“The Hispanic turnout has been very low over the years. Here’s a guy who has a chance to energize and motivate part of the population, 70 percent of whom will be with us, if they turn out.”

The most recent state poll, by Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli, showed Bush with 51 percent to Kerry’s 39 percent, with seven percent undecided. Another Colorado poll showed Kerry and Bush statistically tied, a notion Ciruli dismissed. “I believe the president is up nationally, let’s say by at least four or five points. There is no way in my opinion he is then running dead even here in Colorado. I just don’t believe it.”

Ciruli sampled 600 registered likely voters from Sept. 14 to Sept 18. His poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 points.

Ciruli works from a file of registered Colorado voters, then winnows it down to those who voted in 2000 or 2002. He then adds all newly registered voters. In that universe of people he uses random-digit-dialing to get a sample.

Poll shows Kerry's problems
The key to Bush’s strength in Colorado as in other states seems to be the perception of him as resolute and Kerry as fickle.

When asked which candidate the phrase “takes a position and sticks with it” better describes, 60 percent in Ciruli’s survey chose Bush, while only 17 percent opted for Kerry.

And Ciruli found that, despite Kerry’s criticism of Bush’s Iraq strategy, only 33 percent thought Kerry was the candidate who was better able to deal with Iraq.

Ciruli’s survey determined that about one-fifth of the Colorado electorate is either an active or retired member of the military or has a military person in the household. Among such voters, nearly 60 percent back Bush.

Bush is also doing better than Republicans usually do among women voters in Colorado: He gets 48 percent of them in Ciruli’s survey, while Kerry gets 39 percent and another nine percent are undecided.

“Kerry needs to build up his core vote — he ought to be in the mid-80s,” Ciruli said. In Ciruli’s survey, 77 percent of self-identified Democrats said they’d vote for Kerry, compared to 85 percent of Republicans who said they’d vote for Bush.