DENVER (AFP) — Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are hoping to strike electoral gold by mining for votes in a series of western US states long regarded as Republican strongholds, analysts say.
A Quinnipiac University poll Sunday, taken before Obama chose Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate, found Republican John McCain was leading his rival 47 percent to 46 percent in Colorado, which hosts the Democratic National Convention this week.
The race is also close in other western states which form a new battleground in the intense presidential election map between Republicans and Democrats.
"I think Obama and Biden together can absolutely help us win Colorado," the state's governor Bill Ritter told Fox News Sunday.
"The west has changed. Since 1992, it's changed a great deal ... the independents in the west are really looking for leadership."
When the Democratic leadership announced that Denver would play host to the party's 2008 convention, it was yet another sign that Democrats were aiming to compete aggressively in the West.
Obama's campaign is targeting wins in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, where 19 electoral college votes will be up for grabs out of the 270 necessary to win the White House.
"This year, the road to the White House runs through the West," Colorado's Democratic Senator Ken Salazar wrote in the Los Angeles Times earlier this week.
Election history favors the Republicans -- in 2004 George W. Bush won all three states, as well as neighboring Arizona.
In fact, in the 40 years since 1968, only president Bill Clinton has been able to break the Republican stranglehold, taking Colorado in 1992 as well as Nevada and New Mexico, which he retained four years later.
But fast-changing demographics and dissatisfaction with Washington are threatening to rewrite the electoral map.
Both Nevada and Colorado have witnessed dramatic population growth since 2000, with Nevada increasing by 20.8 percent and Colorado by nine percent.
Patty Limerick, a professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Colorado's Center of the American West, said swathes of voters in the region have grown frustrated with the status quo of US politics.
"There are growing numbers of voters who are scratching their heads and saying, 'Where did my party go?'. And I've heard more Republicans than Democrats saying that," Limerick told AFP.
In Colorado, Republicans who traditionally came from the libertarian strand of the party have grown disaffected by its emphasis over the past decade towards social conservatism.
"The Republican Party has a great challenge in knitting together those people who are Republicans because they don't want people interfering in their private lives, and the people who are Republicans because they want to interfere in other people's private lives," Limerick said. "Those aren't groups that are easy to reconcile."
While national issues such as the state of the economy were certain to be at the forefront of voter concerns, the environment, energy policy and immigration were all likely to play a part in November elections, Limerick said.
"There's so much in our regional economy of construction, development, tourism, hospitality, agriculture, in which immigration labor is vital," Limerick said. "And a lot of people realize that closing the border is going to lead to significant changes in things like food prices and food availability."
David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, meanwhile said Democrats were likely to benefit from an increasing Hispanic population and higher registration of younger voters.
"We've seen the Democrats put a lot of interest in trying to win Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. They've sunk a lot of resources into Nevada which has been great for mobilization of voter turnout," Damore said, citing the huge numbers of Democrats who voted in January's Nevada caucuses.
Damore said that for Nevadans the economy was likely to be the key campaign issue, noting that the state was reeling from the country's highest rate of home foreclosures.
"Foreclosure, gas prices, health insurance, inflation, unemployment creeping towards seven percent -- it's a perfect storm of economic issues," Damore said. "All that is likely to trump Iraq and questions of national security."
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