DENVER — Perhaps no region of the country better illustrates President Barack Obama's political vulnerabilities than the mountain West.
He's hoping to ease some of those concerns in a Western swing blending town hall appearances and visits to national parks beginning Friday.
Democrats have made recent election inroads in the region by successfully courting independents, Republican crossovers and conservative-to-moderate loyalists in their own party. But it's these very voters – gun owners, civil libertarians, private property advocates – who seem to be turning away from the president across the country because of deep-seated concerns about expanding government and soaring budget deficits.
They are people who bristle at big business bailouts and decry government's reach into their own lives. They don't see Obama's stimulus plan jump-starting the economy or boosting employment. They fret about the enormous price tags of his sweeping proposals to overhaul health care and revamp energy policy.
"People are ready to see him move beyond the rhetoric. People want to see jobs come back. We want to see the economy recover. So we're still, I think, waiting to see that," says Chris Lawson, 30, who voted for Obama last fall and says he doesn't regret it. The Littleton, Colo., resident expressed worries about health care in particular, saying: "We are clearly moving toward more government in more people's lives. ... That's not a good thing, more government."
Another Obama voter, Eric Schreiber, 44, of Denver argued it's too early to judge the president. But, he added, Obama definitely hasn't sold him on the health care overhaul. "It's a good idea to do health reform, but I think everybody wants to know more about how it will work," Schreiber said.
Obama is hoping he can allay such worries as he promotes his plan at town hall-style events in reliably Republican areas: Friday in Belgrade, Mont., and Saturday in Grand Junction, Colo., near the Utah state line. The first family also plans to visit Yellowstone and Grand Canyon to highlight the country's national parks.
In a nod to his surroundings, the president plans to try out the classic Western sport of fly-fishing for the first time Friday, using a new reel that was a birthday present from some avid fishermen on his staff and accompanied by a guide – but not any media.
Just eight months ago, the president took office with sky-high job approval ratings, the first Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson to win the White House with more than 50 percent of the popular vote. He did it by cobbling together support that spanned the ideological spectrum. He pulled new voters – particularly left-leaning young people and minorities – into the process and turned out his Democratic base in droves. And independents, disaffected Republicans and middle-of-the-road Democrats put him over the top.
That coalition – coupled with a national desire for change after years of Republican George W. Bush – made it possible for Obama to win a slew of states that hadn't voted for a Democrat in years, Colorado and Nevada, among them. He also won New Mexico, a perennial swing state, came very close to winning Montana, and lost by just 9 percentage points in Republican John McCain's home state of Arizona. Still, Obama lost badly in ultraconservative Republican bastions, including Idaho, Wyoming and Utah.
Since his inauguration, Obama has watched his support slide nationally. It hovered at 55 percent in a recent AP-GfK poll, though other surveys show him under 50 percent.
Out-of-power Republicans have tagged Obama as a classic big-spending, big-government liberal, and those gripes may have resonated with independents and centrists who polls show have turned away from Obama or whose support is soft. The GOP's message may be particularly well-received in the mountain West, a region traditionally wary of the federal government.
"Democrats had some success last year. Since then, I think the president has slipped not just a little but a great deal," said Dave Hansen, head of the Utah GOP who once held the same position in Montana. "He's a charming, charismatic guy, but all of a sudden the issues are taking over, and it's not going over well."
Tracking polls by Gallup from January through June show that of the 10 states where Obama's approval rating was the lowest, five are in the mountain West. They include the two states Obama is visiting this weekend as well as Wyoming, Idaho and Utah.
Those findings raise the question: Will the recent Democratic successes in the region last?
"I don't think we can say that yet," said Bob Loevy, a political scientist at Colorado College.
Certainly Obama's successful nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court will help with the region's rapidly growing Hispanic communities, a pivotal Democratic-leaning constituency. And future trips to the West are certain between now and midterm elections next fall.
For its part, the GOP in the mountain West has its work cut out for it.
The party can't seem to even field strong candidates to challenge incumbent Democrats. Most recently, Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., decided against challenging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid next year in Nevada, even though the Democrat's job performance numbers are dismal.
Sidoti reported from Washington.