McCain and Obama fight for Western states |

McCain and Obama fight for Western states

Liz Sidoti / The Associated Press

RENO – Call it the political version of how to win the West.

Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama are tripping over each other this week in New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, a prelude to a likely general election matchup and inevitable fight for three booming battleground states. President Bush narrowly won the three states four years ago, and Democrats now see them as ripe for opportunity.

“I’m a Western senator,” McCain, the GOP nominee-in-waiting from Arizona, said in this gambling mecca Wednesday, signaling he intends to fiercely defend the turf. “I understand our issues.”

Obama, who has nearly secured the Democratic nomination, sounds just as determined.

“We can win the West,” the Illinois senator said Monday at a museum in Las Cruces, N.M., as he stood alongside the state’s Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, a prominent Latino. “We’re going to fight as hard as we can in these states.”

Once a Republican stronghold, the historically conservative West has changed demographically over the past decade and, thus, politically.

Retirees from all over, including the liberal Northeast and West Coast, flocked to the region because of its available and cheap land, its dry, warm climate, its range of recreational activities and its magnificent mountains and sprawling deserts. Businesses sprouted in the region’s few dense population centers, and job opportunities followed. So did swarms of swing-voting Latino immigrants.

That growth exploded since the last presidential election. Census figures show that Nevada grew 10.1 percent, Colorado 5.5 percent and New Mexico 4.1 percent between July 2004 and July 2007.

Thus, the region has become far more competitive and margins of victory have tightened as Democrats made inroads into decades-old GOP dominance.

In 2004, Bush won New Mexico by 1 percentage point, Nevada by 2 and Colorado by 5. Of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory, the states offer a combined 19 – the same number that Democrat John Kerry lost to Bush by four years ago. So, if Obama can win all the states that Kerry did, plus the three Western states, Democrats would win the White House after eight years of Republican rule.

Democrats argue that they now have more of a chance to take the West, and Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico are among their top targets. Arizona would have been, too, if McCain, the state’s four-term senator, weren’t the GOP opponent.

They point to recent electoral gains that swept Republicans from long-held offices, and note that both Colorado and New Mexico have Democratic governors. They argue that migration, in part from the more liberal coasts, works to their benefit. And, they claim that swing-voting Latinos, whose numbers also have grown, are trending Democratic this year.

Obama is maneuvering to compete in the West even before he secures the nomination over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. He talked with veterans on Memorial Day in Las Cruces, N.M., discussed the housing crisis in the sprawl of North Las Vegas, Nev., a day later, and talked education Wednesday in Thornton, Colo.

“Understand that my starting principle is, everybody should be bilingual or everybody should be trilingual,” Obama said to cheers at a high school. Otherwise, he said, the United States will struggle to keep up with economic competition from other countries.

Obama allies argue that his appeal to independents will extend to voters here. They play down concerns among some Democrats about his standing with Hispanic voters, and say he’s just as strong with them as Kerry and Al Gore were when they ran. Nevermind that both lost to Bush.

During the primary, Latinos preferred Clinton to Obama by nearly 2-to-1, according to exit polls. Obama’s bid to become the first black president also may give some Latinos pause; racial tensions between the two groups are undeniable.

Republicans say they are concerned about defending the West only because of the strong national headwinds working against the GOP and not because of their candidate. They are comforted by McCain’s long-standing support among Latinos and his personal links to the West.

The Arizona senator and former chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee argues that his decades of experience handling issues critical to the region gives him an advantage over the first-term senator. McCain argues that Obama lacks the knowledge and background on Western issues, such as land management, water shortages and Native American concerns.

McCain’s support for an eventual path to citizenship for illegal immigrants is a wild card with Latinos. “We have to secure our borders first,” McCain said at a town-hall style event at a local Boys & Girls Club on Wednesday. It’s a position shift he made after broad-based legislation failed last year.

He also touched on other issues.

On alternative fuel sources, he said solar energy development needs to be embraced in both Nevada and Arizona. And, pressed about the construction of a nuclear waste repository in Nevada that many residents oppose, McCain told people something they didn’t want to hear.

“I support Yucca Mountain once it goes through all the processes it needs to go through,” McCain said. “But I also support reprocessing. A little straight talk, we have to do both.”

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