Locked out of the Deep South, Kerry sets his sights on South-west desert country

John Kerry embarked on a final big push for votes in the South-west yesterday, courting a region that once skewed resolutely conservative but which now represents the Democratic candidate's best hope of making inroads in an otherwise solid block of Bush support stretching from coast to coast.

John Kerry embarked on a final big push for votes in the South-west yesterday, courting a region that once skewed resolutely conservative but which now represents the Democratic candidate's best hope of making inroads in an otherwise solid block of Bush support stretching from coast to coast.

The Massachusetts senator was due to address a crowd at the University of Nevada in Reno last night - his sixth trip of the campaign to a state representing just five electoral votes - before hopping over to Pueblo, Colorado, for a morning rally with the local Democratic senate candidate, Ken Salazar, and thence to Las Cruces, New Mexico for a big get-out-the-vote push among the area's heavily Latino population.

In all three states, Mr Kerry is locked in a tight battle with George Bush. Winning even one of them could prove crucial in securing a majority in the electoral college. Winning more than one would effectively signal a major shift in US voting patterns, one in which the traditional conservatism of the mountain and desert West would be trumped by new population inflows, and by a regional distaste for the religious fundamentalism of the Bush wing of the Republican Party.

This is a region that Al Gore all but ignored in 2000. He won New Mexico by a hair, came reasonably close but lost in Nevada and hardly contested either Arizona or Colorado.

Instead, the Gore campaign still held out hope that the Democrats could challenge the Republicans' supremacy in the Deep South, not least because their candidate was a southerner himself.

The 2000 race all but erased those hopes, as Vice-President Gore lost lock, stock and barrel across the region, including in Tennessee, his home state. This year, Mr Kerry started out with some hope in North Carolina (home of his running-mate, John Edwards), Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. As the race has tightened, however, he has stopped travelling to the Deep South and almost entirely pulled his television advertising.

The South-west, by contrast, has been in the Democratic Party's sights for some time, even before Mr Kerry emerged as the presidential nominee. The region has a rapidly changing - and growing - population, thanks to an influx of Latino immigrants and politically diverse pensioners.

New Mexico remains the easiest prize, not least because the state is in Democratic hands under Governor Bill Richardson, a former Clinton administration member. There, however, the politics are trending more conservative as big suburban communities start to mushroom outside Albuquerque, the biggest city, and the idiosyncratic, heavily Latino population starts to look whiter and more mainstream. Most recent polls put Mr Kerry ahead there by just a hair.

Nevada is effectively split between the Las Vegas, which is overwhelmingly Democrat, and the rest of the state, which is deeply conservative thanks to a large Mormon population, which reliably votes Republican. Here, as in so many places in this election, turnout will be key - especially among Las Vegas' union workers, minorities and immigrant service workers.

Democratic Party workers, who waged a registration drive of unprecedented intensity, are hoping these voters will be encouraged by a local ballot initiative on raising the minimum wage.

The Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping they will be outnumbered by more conservative pensioners attracted to Nevada because of its low taxes and golf courses. For a while, the Bush administration's plans to send nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, less than 100 miles from Las Vegas, was a hot campaign issue, but it has subsided largely because of a lack of faith that a President Kerry would do anything different. Most polls suggest President Bush is narrowly ahead.

Colorado is an intriguing new battleground made more intense by the close senate race that is pitting Mr Salazar, a Latino and the state's attorney general, against the beer magnate Pete Coors. Although the state has a large contingent of liberals and environmentalists, concentrated around Denver and Boulder, seat of the University of Colorado, Mr Kerry initially assumed he had no chance here.

Registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats, especially in the fast-growing suburbs and in cities such as Colorado Springs, where a large military and ex-military population rubs shoulders with the fundamentalist Christian right.

However, polls in early October suddenly showed Mr Kerry pulling ahead of President Bush, at the same time as Mr Salazar was shown to be 10 points ahead of Mr Coors. Both races have tightened considerably since then, and are now tipping modestly in the Republican direction.

Mr Salazar initially chose to keep his distance from the Kerry campaign, figuring he stood a better chance without them, but will now appear at the Pueblo rally alongside the presidential candidate - a sign, perhaps, that both campaigns are in trouble.

The final unknown in the region is Arizona, where a recent poll showed Mr Kerry pulling much closer to the President than expected even though he had pulled his television advertising and apparently given up on the state. The Democrats are waging a furious grassroots campaign, in the hope of winning by stealth and sheer weight of voter numbers.

Their biggest obstacle, however, is low turnout among Latinos, who make up 25 per cent of Arizona's eligible voters but who are notoriously hard to drag to the polls. In 2000, just 18 per cent of them showed up.

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