AURORA, Colo. -- For all the volatility in the national polls, on the ground in a critical swing state like this, the divisions in the 2008 presidential race often seem as immovable as the Rocky Mountains.
A powerful demand for change rooted in dissatisfaction with the country's direction is providing a narrow but palpable edge to Democratic nominee Barack Obama. But doubts among blue-collar white families and other culturally conservative voters about Obama's values, agenda and above all his experience are allowing Republican John McCain to stay within reach.
Those messages emerged clearly from two days of interviews I conducted after the first presidential debate with voters in Denver and its hotly contested suburbs -- including this largely blue-collar community just southeast of the city.
Obama's opportunity revolves around voters like Jordan Bylsma, a computer technician from Parker who considers himself mostly conservative but is leaning toward the Democrat this year. "I don't like the Bush administration, and McCain seems to have been very close to the Bush administration," he said while sitting with his family in a park in Englewood, a largely blue-collar suburb south of Denver. "I'm not buying all of [Obama's] stuff about change, but there does need to be something different."
McCain is being kept within range by voters like Carl K., an entrepreneur from Thornton, who has voted for presidential candidates from both parties but backed George W. Bush in 2004. Although Carl, who chose not to give his last name, is disappointed in the president, he's firmly supporting McCain because he considers him far better prepared than Obama. "I think we need someone with more of a world foundation, who's been around and experienced life," Carl said. "I think McCain understands a little more of how the world operates."
Colorado is a good place to measure attitudes toward the presidential contenders because each campaign considers the state one of the handful likely to tip a close election. Since 1964, Democratic presidential nominees have carried the state only once -- in 1992, when Ross Perot's strong third-party showing allowed Bill Clinton to squeeze by with only 40 percent of the vote. But in recent years, Democrats have surged here -- winning the governorship, both chambers of the state legislature, a majority of the Congressional seats and capturing a U.S. Senate seat.
While young professionals largely thought Obama was smart enough to learn the ropes as president and commander in chief, blue-collar men were incredulous at the notion that Obama could fill those roles without more experience.
I had spent two days interviewing voters in the Denver suburbs before, over the July 4 weekend. Opinions on both sides seemed fluid and unformed at that point; for many of those I met, the race was still a distant abstraction, like a back-to-school homework assignment during the height of summer.
In the more recent round of interviews, it was clear that many voters had filled in their composition book. But the intervening months had done more to harden than to rearrange the basic divisions evident in July. In largely blue-collar communities like Aurora and Englewood, my interviews found a strong preference for McCain, especially among white working-class men. Obama did best among young people, minorities and white voters who worked in white-collar professions. He also has some openings among blue-collar white women, who tended to concentrate less on experience and national security than on their unease over the economy.
Obama's appeal for better-educated and affluent whites who might ordinarily tilt toward the GOP on economic grounds was evident when I watched the first presidential debate on Sept. 26 with a group of undecided or loosely committed voters in a downtown Denver apartment. These voters were young and well-educated but also predominantly involved in finance and banking, which made them very sensitive to Republican arguments that Obama would raise their taxes. Of the eight people in the room, only two had voted for Democrat John Kerry in 2004; two others had voted for Bush. The rest had either not voted or supported third-party candidates.
Most of those in the group had arrived at the apartment leaning at least slightly toward Obama, and by the debate's end, the tilt in his direction was even more pronounced.
The debate showcased many of the attributes about Obama most attractive to these young professionals. They found him knowledgeable, articulate and -- in the word that came up most often -- fluent in his responses. He displayed the same command of concepts and ideas that they must show in their own work. By contrast, many of them found McCain programmed and prickly. "McCain is grouchy and he repeats himself, whereas Obama I feel more is trying to have a conversation with me," said Elinor Swanson, a manager at a medical advisory company.
Brendan Burke, the marketing manager at a local private equity firm, voted for Bush in 2004 and, like many of these young people, tends to be dubious of Democratic proposals to expand government or raise taxes. "I genuinely like both candidates and I respect them," Burke said. But today, Burke said, he's likely to support Obama. "McCain traditionally has been the rogue of the Republican Party, but now that he has been embraced by the party machine he seems to have lost that edge," Burke said.
Justin Baccary, who works in real estate finance, has shifted even more emphatically into Obama's camp. In 2000, Baccary volunteered in George W. Bush's first presidential campaign. And, like Burke, he says he began this year with much respect for McCain. But Baccary says he has been deeply disillusioned by Bush's performance. And more recently Baccary has lost faith in McCain because he views him as too erratic and volatile on big issues, a commonly expressed complaint in the group. "I can't believe the things he's been saying," Baccary said.
Bonnie Swanson, a retired doctor, was older than the others in the room. But, like many others there, she was drawn toward Obama because she viewed him as a more nuanced and flexible thinker. During the debate, she said, she recoiled from McCain "because he was constantly saying [to Obama] 'you don't understand' and was constantly dumbing down the issues.... It was good and evil, no shades." Around the room, McCain's insistence that Obama was "naive" or "didn't understand" complex issues prompted complaints. And Baccary spoke for many in the group when he said McCain had undercut his arguments about experience by selecting as his running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
The terrain was much tougher for Obama the next day when I talked with about three dozen predominantly white working-class voters in Aurora and Englewood. In these communities, Obama continued to face an almost impenetrable wall of skepticism from blue-collar men -- just as he did in my interviews this past summer. By far, the biggest hurdle for Obama was a widespread sense that he lacks the experience to serve as president during such a tumultuous time.
"I am a Democrat and I am leaning toward McCain," said Mike Murray, a hospital maintenance engineer from Colorado Springs. Murray has only contempt for President Bush and worries that in voting for McCain he'll get "four more years of the Bush administration." Yet Murray is strongly leaning toward the Republican nominee. "It's the experience, the background," he said. "I don't think Obama has been around long enough to be a leader at this time."
Jason Montgomery, a truck driver and former Army demolitions expert from Aurora, is even more firmly committed to McCain. Like Murray, Montgomery is unhappy about the country's direction and worries that McCain will follow too closely in Bush's path. But Montgomery is dead set against Obama. "If Obama gets elected, he is going to destroy our military," Montgomery said passionately. "And the fact that he's supposed to be the commander in chief -- he's never served in the military, he doesn't know what it takes."
That last point was a common theme among blue-collar men. While the young professionals in Burke's apartment largely thought Obama was smart enough to learn the ropes as president and commander in chief, these men were almost uniformly incredulous at the notion that Obama could fill those roles without more experience. "He does not have enough time spent on the job," said Carl K., in a telling comment.
To the extent Obama did have any openings in these communities, it was mostly among women and younger men. Both Kevin W. and Scott N., two cable television technicians from Aurora in their early twenties who chose not to give their last names, did not vote in 2004. But each is planning to back Obama next month based on nothing more complicated than an elemental desire for change. "All these things have happened under Bush," said Scott. "Why not put somebody in there who is different?" Alison Buhr, a retired receptionist from Aurora who twice backed Bush, is much older than the cable technicians but shares that impulse. "I don't want Republicans in there, and Obama is the best alternative," she said.
On balance these interviews suggested that Obama is attracting enough former Bush supporters and enough new voters to carry him within reach of taking Colorado; most recent polls provide the Democrat an edge. But lingering doubts about the Democrat may be even more entrenched in Republican-leaning rural parts of the state. The outcome will likely rest on conflicted voters like James Moessner, a retired truck driver in Aurora, who worries that Obama is too green and McCain too much like Bush. "McCain was in the service, so he knows the deal," Moessner said. "But he goes along with Bush and I can't go along with Bush." Moessner remains deeply undecided, "between a rock and a hard spot," as he put it.
In the tense struggle for Colorado's critical nine Electoral College votes, Obama has an advantage that may help sway voters like Moessner: an enormous field operation fueled by a huge and passionate volunteer base. I spent some time late on a Saturday afternoon with volunteers canvassing for Obama around a neighborhood in Englewood. On streets with weathered old houses, small hardscrabble yards and signs that warn "No Solicitors" or "Beware of Dog," Dan Lair, a University of Denver professor who leads the local volunteer team, received mostly chilly receptions from the same sort of blue-collar voters I had talked to all day. The friendliest response he found during an hour of canvassing was from a young lawyer who had recently moved into the neighborhood.
Yet the canvass, one of hundreds the Obama campaign is operating around the state, runs seven days a week. Step by step, it is accumulating tangible results. Anne Filipic, the Obama campaign's general election director in the state, points to figures showing that since January, the number of Coloradans under 30 who are registered to vote has soared by 40 percent. After the Obama campaign's spirited voter registration effort, those young people now significantly outnumber seniors as a share of registered voters. Likewise, Democrats have cut the Republican lead among registered voters from 181,000 in August 2004 to just under 74,000 as of last August. On the weekend before the first debate, the Obama campaign calculates that volunteers knocked on 107,000 doors in Colorado. "I don't think there is a question that we are going to expand the electorate," Filipic says.
One sign Filipic isn't just boasting came from Vicki Befort, another volunteer who teaches at Arapahoe Community College. When I met her, Befort had just returned from a day canvassing outside a Mexican supermarket in Denver. The weekend before, she had been there with another white woman to set up a voter registration table outside the market. Since neither of the women spoke Spanish, and few of the shoppers spoke English, the two quickly realized there was little point in remaining.
During the week, the two women posted a notice in one of the campaign's online message groups asking for Spanish-speaking volunteers to join them on another trip to the market. Four people responded, and on this beautiful fall Saturday, they stationed themselves at a table outside for six hours. This time, Befort proudly returned with registration forms from three dozen new voters, another trickle in the current that Obama supporters hope will carry him to the White House.