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Cowboy Boots, High Heels and the Fight for Colo.

Cowboy Boots, High Heels and the Fight for Colo.

By Carl M. Cannon - October 22, 2012


DENVER -- The airwaves are saturated with political ads, the polls are even, voters exhausted, and party professionals dutifully predicting victory for their side -- but only by a single percentage point or two.

Similar dynamics are at work in a half-dozen other closely contested states in a presidential election that appears to be virtually tied with only two weeks to go, but Colorado may be the closest of them all. And here in the clear mountain air, the Democrats’ grim determination stands in stark contrast to the easy euphoria that enveloped the Obama crusade four years ago.

Colorado has emerged in recent years as a bellwether. The 2010 Senate election between Sen. Michael Bennet and GOP challenger Ken Buck was decided by fewer than 29,000 votes out of the 1.7 million cast. The 2012 presidential race seems just as close in a state that is the site of the zenith of Barack Obama’s political career -- and the nadir.

Four years ago, Barack Obama swept to victory here convincingly, out-performing his national margin in an effort punctuated by a triumphant convention acceptance speech before 70,000 Democrats in the Mile High City’s pro football stadium.

Earlier this month, in a far smaller venue at the University of Denver, Obama disheartened supporters with a lackluster performance in the first of three presidential debates against Mitt Romney. After that performance, the polls tightened here, just as they did in swing states across the country, and the battle lines became clearer.

Two weeks later, when the president bounced back with a stronger performance in the second debate at Hofstra University, his best lines were greeted with audible cheers from young viewers at a handful of downtown Denver pubs. The inner cities and college towns are still for Obama, just as the rural “cow counties” are solidly behind Mitt Romney.

The keys to Colorado’s nine electoral votes, both camps say, are the state’s sprawling suburbs, particularly in Arapahoe and Jefferson counties, surrounding Denver -- and within those counties the key demographic group is independent women. Neither side is taking them for granted. Obama has visited here 13 times as president (10 of those trips coming this year), and last week a steady stream of surrogates from both campaigns traversed the state.

As of last week, a combined $72 million had been spent on political ads here by the two campaigns and the super PACs working on their behalf. This puts Colorado fourth behind only Florida, Ohio, and Virginia -- and it is a state, unlike the others, with only one major media market. The Obama campaign has spent some $15 million in Denver alone on nearly 17,500 ads, according to one local television station. This is more than double what Romney has spent, though much of that advantage has been negated by Republican-affiliated super PACs, particularly American Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity.

As in the other battleground states, the main thrust of these expensive ads campaigns has been negative. The anti-Obama ads have focused on the nation’s underperforming economy, while the main thrust of most of the anti-Romney ads -- as in Northern Virginia and other suburban battlegrounds -- has been to convince female voters that a vote for the GOP ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan is a vote against legalized abortion, and even access to contraception.

The evidence is mixed on whether either approach is working.

Two years ago, Democrats succeeded in portraying Ken Buck as hopelessly antediluvian when it came to women’s issues, and they are using the identical rhetoric against Romney and Ryan. There are key differences, however. In 2010, Buck relied on Tea Party support to challenge GOP establishment candidate Jane Norton. The contest was acrimonious and Norton ran an ad seemingly questioning Buck’s manhood. In response, Buck told a friendly audience at a televised event: “Why should you vote for me? Because I do not wear high heels. I have cowboy boots. They have real bullshit on them.”

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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