Barack Obama gives rival Mitt Romney mountain to climb for Hispanic vote

The President still holds sway over a key demographic

Everything that matters in this election comes together in the rising plains and soaring peaks of Colorado, a state where voters divide equally by registration between Republicans, Democrats and independents, where the Hispanic population is growing, where early voting has started and where the candidates are neck and neck.

It is why, when Barack Obama addressed a crowd of 16,000 in City Park in Denver late on Wednesday, he promised, "You will be seeing me again," before election day. It is also why, when Mitt Romney packed the Red Rocks amphitheatre near here the day before, a Latino family was placed right behind him on the stage holding "Democrats for Romney" signs. "I love that, I love that," the Governor cried.

Colorado also offers a mirror to where Mr Obama finds himself today. Even though this state had only voted once for a Democrat for the White House since 1968, four years ago Mr Obama won it by a nine points after building a commanding coalition of independents. Yet now, it is a toss-up.

"The President is doing everything he needs to do," Wellington Webb, a former Denver mayor and a giant in Democratic politics here, told The Independent. "It's on the rest of us now to make sure we get the vote out. It's game time." He called Mr Romney unpredictable and weak on what matters to women, "and he's not speaking to the issues of the Hispanic community".

Keeping Hispanics in his camp here and in all the other battleground states – and generating sufficient enthusiasm that they vote – is one of the key challenges of the Obama campaign. Some national polls give Mr Obama leads of nearly 50 points over Mr Romney among Latino voters and even then it is possible that his support is being underestimated. Yet, Mr Obama still can't take them for granted.

For one, Mr Romney is ceding nothing. He has been running a parallel campaign targeted solely at Hispanics. Called "Juntos con Romney" (Together with Romney), it has aggressively courted the community, particularly here in Colorado with Spanish-language TV and radio spots. "This is probably one of the biggest outreaches I've ever seen," said Edgar Antillon, chairman of Juntos con Romney in Adams County, east of Denver.

While Mr Romney hurt himself during the primaries paying lip-service to anti-immigrant groups, his supporters argue that many Hispanics are more concerned with the economy. That, certainly, has been the experience of Martin Mendez, who heads Colorado Hispanic Republicans. Each Saturday he and 20 others wave signs at road junctions in Denver with signs that say "No Mas Obama" (No more Obama).

"It's an uphill battle for us because of the neglect of Latinos in Colorado by the party in terms of their being recruited and wooed," he explained this week. But he believes that this time Mr Obama may not get even a majority of Latinos in the state mostly because of the President's promise in 2008 to pass immigration reform that never happened. "He burned Hispanics, he used Hispanics just to get their vote and then turned his back on us."

But the other reason, he says, is that it is the economy that matters most and on that many Latinos, who are often small business owners, like Mr Romney's agenda better. "The biggest issue that appeals to Hispanics is this vision of economic opportunity, which I believe our president is destroying in this country." But Rodrigo Cortez, a Denver bus driver, who with his partner, Elith Rodriguez, has been canvassing voters each weekend in a Latino market here, says Hispanic support for Mr Obama remains strong. The biggest boost, he says, was the President's move to enforce by executive order the main elements of the Dream Act to allow young people brought into the country illegally by their parents to stay in America.

As for the failure to pass wider reform, they get it, he says. "The truth is you are going to have some setbacks, the President doesn't decide everything." Mr Obama can only hope that he is right.