AURORA, Colo. — A cartoon taped to the door of Barack Obama's campaign headquarters in Fort Collins, Colorado's fifth largest city, depicts a young man with a clothespin over his nose. The caption says, "I registered because the economy stinks."
Since President Bush's call for a $700 billion Wall Street bailout and the first presidential debate, polls have found that Obama has edged ahead of Republican John McCain in this Western battleground state with nine electoral votes. Obama was up by 5 points, according to an average of five late-September surveys by the Web site RealClearPolitics.
An Obama win in once-red Colorado, which voted twice for President Bush but has since elected a Democratic governor and senator, could tip the election. The race is still close, however, and Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state by about 74,000. About one-third of Colorado's 3 million voters don't belong to either party.
"If Obama wins this state, it's indicative of other things happening around the country," said Bob Duffy, a Colorado State University political scientist. "This is a state that McCain should win."
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Several undecided Coloradoans who were interviewed this week said the economy had pushed other concerns to the background, such as alternative energy and immigration, but that they still weren't sure how the financial crisis might affect their votes.
At a Wal-Mart in Greeley, a traditionally Republican city an hour northeast of Denver — where Latinos drawn by meatpacking and agricultural jobs now make up 30 percent of the population — retirees Paula Seader, 74, and her husband, Paul, 83, worried about Wall Street's woes reducing their retirement savings.
Paula Seader said she'd previously leaned toward McCain, but "with this money problem, that brought me down a notch on McCain. He's been in there for so long it seems like he had something to do with it. I've never been so mixed up."
Paul Seader plans to stick with McCain. He accepts the Arizona senator's recent conversion to favoring more regulation of Wall Street: "I think he's finally seen the mistakes the Republican Party's made and is willing to change them."
At the Dollar Tree store down the street, Nicole Benavidez, 30, a Mexican-American single mother of three and a home health-care provider, said she'd back Obama: "We need a change."
Obama's campaign is hoping that Colorado's growing population of Latinos, an estimated 9.5 percent of the state's registered voters, and college-educated white voters moving in from other states will help put him over the top.
McCain is pushing back. He's put up aggressive ads portraying the Illinois senator as fiscally irresponsible and himself as the change candidate.
Both candidates campaigned in Colorado this week, looking for undecided voters in suburban counties around Denver. Both campaigns are working to turn out voters in party strongholds, such as Boulder for Democrats and Colorado Springs for Republicans.
Obama's campaign is mounting a serious Latino outreach effort in Colorado. McCain also is courting Latino Democrats, especially those who wanted Hillary Clinton.
Tom Kise, a Colorado spokesman for McCain, said the race "is neck and neck, and it's going to be a battle for finding the independent voters on both sides. We're reaching out aggressively not only to Hispanic voters, but unaffiliated voters."
McCain's announcement that Friday he'd visit the heavily Latino and Democratic city of Pueblo, two hours south of Denver, was the lead Page One story on Wednesday in The Pueblo Chieftain. The article said that McCain might be the first Republican presidential candidate to visit since William Howard Taft in 1912.
Lisa Martinez, 39, a mother of four who was shopping in the Denver suburb of Westminster, where Obama spoke at a high school earlier in the week, is the sort of Latino Democrat the McCain campaign is targeting.
She moved to Colorado five years ago from New Mexico. She considered herself "a die-hard Democrat" until Obama got the nomination. "I was a Hillary fan, so it's hard for me to want to vote for Obama," she said. "I just have untrust for him."
When Martinez talks about what issues are important to her — she favors abortion rights and wants the government to make health care more affordable — Obama sounds more like her candidate than McCain.
But McCain's addition of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the ticket — regardless of Palin's anti-abortion and small-government stands — has gotten Martinez thinking seriously about voting for McCain. "I know it sounds really odd," she said. "But it's about damn time that a woman got into that house. She's a strong woman."
Many other Latino men and women who were interviewed this week preferred Obama to McCain, however, and didn't consider Palin a selling point.
Kristin Draper, an Obama campaign volunteer in Fort Collins, said she never initiated questions about Palin in calls to voters, but that right after McCain picked his running mate, some undecided female voters told her they were tempted to vote Republican because there was a woman on the ticket. That's faded; in the past couple of weeks, Draper said, she isn't hearing that anymore. "She's just not being mentioned."
Susan Yaple, 42, an office manager, said that Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver helped convince her to support him. She likes what he has to say about cutting taxes for the middle class and wanting to penalize companies that send jobs overseas.
Yaple worries that homes in her neighborhood have lost one-third of their value in the past year. Still, her husband works for Budweiser, and she figures that as the economy goes south, beer sales will go up. "The worse the economy gets, the more people want to forget it."
Some McCain-Palin supporters said the Iraq war or social issues were still paramount.
"If the economy is bad and it's the Republicans' fault — if everything is the Republicans' fault — on the simple matter of not killing an unborn child, I'd vote for them," said Daniel Thompson, 40, an insurance adjuster from Louisiana who was transferred to Colorado.
Retiree Joyce Lumming moved to Colorado a year ago from Minnesota. She's a Democrat, but in recent weeks, both campaigns have tracked her down at home in Pueblo to ask for her support. She was surprised to get one campaign solicitation on her cell phone, a number she thought was unlisted. "They're out there trying," she said.
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