DENVER — If you want a sense of how President Barack Obama's team intends to win in the West, look no further than Democrat Michael Bennet's successful fight to retain his Colorado Senate seat last year.
Bennet, who was appointed in 2009, captured a full term in a tough year for Democrats by turning the campaign into a "choice," not a referendum, on his brief time in the Senate.
He portrayed his opponent, Republican Ken Buck, as out of step with state voters. He used strong fundraising to blanket the airwaves and build a large campaign organization to turn out Hispanics, young voters and women squeezed by the economic downturn.
Obama's team has studied that model, and party leaders say the senator's campaign could serve as a template for Obama in other competitive Western states next year. As Obama's standing has declined in the polls, strategists describe voters in the region as angry about the summer's debt limit debate, unhappy with the lack of economic progress and in search of pragmatism.
"They want problem-solvers, not partisan politics as usual," said Craig Hughes, a Denver-based Democratic strategist who advised Obama's campaign in Colorado.
Obama, who travels to Denver on Tuesday during a three-day West coast trip, won the state in 2008 by nearly 9 percentage points, a first for a Democratic presidential nominee since Bill Clinton in 1992. Obama also racked up large margins against the Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, in New Mexico and Nevada, and all three states are considered crucial to his re-election campaign.
Bennet was a surprise appointment by then-Gov. Bill Ritter in 2009 after Obama chose Sen. Ken Salazar to lead the U.S. Interior Department. Bennet was superintendent of Denver's public school system and advised Obama's campaign on education policy, but was relatively unknown.
The new senator turned back a tough primary challenge from former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and then faced Buck, a county prosecutor who won a GOP primary against Lt. Gov. Jane Norton with the help of tea party activists. Democrats railed against Buck after he said that sexual orientation is a choice and told a group of primary voters that they should vote for him because he doesn't "wear high heels."
Bennet raised more than $11 million and ran as an outsider, portraying the federal government as broken and overrun by special interests. In one ad, he contrasted Washington, D.C., with eastern Colorado's Washington County, where "families are looking for ways to get by" and "people are looking to get to work." Bennet won by less than 2 percentage points, a margin of about 30,000 votes.
Republican strategist Dick Wadhams, a former Colorado GOP chairman, said the Bennet model for Obama could go only so far and predicted the president would only win the state "if we have a nominee who hands Obama the issues to beat him with." He said Bennet was "able to exploit some openings given to him by" Buck but would have lost otherwise.
For Obama and his Republican opponent, Bennet's campaign showed the importance of women, including independent-minded women who live in the suburbs surrounding Denver. Exit polls showed that Bennet won 56 percent of women compared with 39 percent for Buck, a margin that helped the Democrat overcome a wide loss among male voters.
Bennet won decisively among Hispanic voters, with more than 80 percent, even though their share of the electorate declined from 2008. Obama won Hispanics by more than 60 percent in Colorado, and Hispanics' portion of the state electorate grew from 8 percent in 2004 to 13 percent in 2008.
Obama's team had a few hundred paid staffers in the state in 2008 and was able to mobilize college students and recent graduates. Voters under age 30 made up 18 percent of the state's electorate in 2008, a slightly larger share than those over 65. But in 2010, voters younger than 30 represented 12 percent of the electorate, a steep decline during the midterms.
Obama's campaign has held weekly meetings, phone banks and voter canvassing around the state. During a recent phone bank in Westminister, a northwestern suburb of Denver, volunteers called up past supporters, asking for their help in pressuring Congress to pass Obama's jobs bill.
The meeting included retirees and students, many of whom volunteered for Bennet's campaign and anticipated a tough presidential race ahead.
"Colorado can go either way," said Carla Beckman, 71, who works part time in human resources management. "I think Obama has a hard way to go here because of the economy and he's the incumbent. If he were a shoe-in, I probably wouldn't be spending my Thursday nights calling people."
Bennet said in Washington that most voters in Colorado "don't recognize themselves in the ideological politics of this town and if anything, I think that gap has grown since my election because of the debt ceiling debate."
"The president does have a record of trying to fight through this entanglement here," Bennet said. "But he's going to have to make that case and I think in the end, that's the decision that people are going to be making, especially independents, without whom no candidate can win Colorado."
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