With his trademark white board on hand, the late Tim Russert presciently declared that the 2000 election came down to "Florida, Florida, Florida." As the country mourns the passing of a beloved newsman, it seems fitting to consider the 2008 race in Russert's parlance. So forget Florida and Ohio -- this election will probably turn on Colorado, Colorado, Colorado.
Barack Obama's best path to the White House runs through the Mountain West, where a growing number of independent and Hispanic voters are breaking the GOP's grip on red states. In 2005, Democrats won Colorado's Legislature for the first time in 40 years. Then they took back the governor's mansion in a 16-point rout last year. In federal elections, Ken Salazar picked off a Senate post from Republicans in 2004; Democratic Rep. Mark Udall leads the race to replace retiring Sen. Wayne Allard, in a seat that Republicans have comfortably held for three decades.
Udall touts himself as an "independent leader" who can reach across the aisle. Yet he also fights for core principles on progressive national security and the "Western way of life." The message is essentially Obama plus cowboy boots.
Like Obama, Udall has already issued rebuttals to Republican attacks on his ability to combat terrorism. In fact, two of the campaign's first three ads hammer national security issues. "Security is something you feel," he says in one, promising to focus foreign policy on vanquishing Al Qaeda "where they're based, in Afghanistan"; add a division to the U.S. military; and responsibly "phase out" of Iraq.
Like Obama, Udall opposed the Iraq war from its inception. As a congressman, he voted against the 2002 war resolution. In a floor statement before the war, he stressed that while the U.S. must contain the threat of Saddam Hussein, other "security goals" were more important, "including winning our war against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism in particular."
Udall's opponent, former Rep. Bob Schaffer, still supports the war, though sometimes it's hard to tell.
The word "Iraq" does not appear on the main issues page of his campaign website, which runs through 16 topics. Click further, though, and you'll find foreign policy bromides that mix the gloom of John McCain's 100-year promise with the self-parody of a "Colbert Report" segment.
"Coloradans consistently tell Bob they do not want a weak national defense," the campaign claims, in case you were wondering whether Coloradans were for weak defense. There's more:
They do not want our American way of life and our national interests threatened by radical totalitarian theocrats, hostile dictators or stateless terrorist [sic]. In a dangerous world, where threats range from stateless terror cells fueled by radicalism to rogue states bent on gaining nuclear weapon capabilities, Bob Schaffer believes these threats are serious. Bob believes we must defend America and her allies.
The clichés continue, yet there is no explanation for why the U.S. should oversee a civil war in Iraq when the "serious" threats are stateless terrorists.
Between Udall's ads and Schaffer's stubborn Republican line on security, this race could keep Iraq in the headlines, which would redound to Obama's benefit. Two out of three independents now say they want the next president to end the war "within the next year or two, no matter what," according to a recent CBS/New York Times survey. So swing voters already lean toward Obama's plan.
In Colorado, independents have been voting more Democratic: They went for John F. Kerry by 7 points in 2004, while he lost the state by 5 points. And swing voters also appear to lean toward Obama's candidacy.
In states with open primaries, exit polling shows Obama pulled more independents than McCain did. A new memo from Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who leads the House Democrats' campaign strategy, notes that even while the GOP nomination was still contested, Obama won the independent vote by 16,000 in New Hampshire and 17,000 in South Carolina.
Colorado also looks like an uphill battle for McCain. He had one of his worst primary finishes there in February, netting only 19 percent to Romney's 60 percent. Meanwhile, Obama posted some of his best numbers, winning a 35-point caucus landslide, suggesting early enthusiasm and organizing. And on a less reliable barometer, a May poll found that Obama and Udall both led their races by 6 points.
If Obama can close the deal out West -- winning back Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico while simply holding the states that went for Kerry in 2004 -- then Americans will watch the swearing-in of President Obama.
He can't write off Florida and Ohio, of course, but Obama could lose them and still win the White House. The new dynamic portends a more diversified general election strategy for Democrats. Last cycle, the presidential campaigns sunk a staggering 48 percent of their television advertising budgets into the two battleground states of Florida and Ohio, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan organization. Yet Obama won the primaries by investing, organizing and excelling in untraditional areas.
If Obama applies that strategy to the general election, with a budget that is both larger and more geographically diversified than Kerry's in 2004, while running with strong local candidates like Udall, on Election Night we may all be chanting, "Colorado, Colorado, Colorado."