Colorado veers towards Democrats

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The Independent Online
A LITTLE embarrassed, Ron Hanson recently made a concession to his wife, Rhonda: he may forsake his Republican roots and vote for Bill Clinton in November. She grinned and said she had long since decided the same. Both have had it with President Bush.

In Colorado, normally so conservative that it has not voted Democract since Lyndon Johnson won in 1964, Ron and Rhonda are not alone. The state is tilting slightly towards Mr Clinton and Al Gore, his running-mate, and has become a prime battleground for the final weeks of the campaign, with both candidates paying it lavish attention.

It carries only eight votes towards the 270-vote majority needed by the eventual winner in the electoral college, but if the race tightens, as it probably will, the state could offer the margin of difference between victory and defeat for the Democrats.

And the fact that Mr Bush is having to fight for a state that by rights should be his is an indicator of his troubles.

'This is by nature a Republican state,' said Colorado's Clinton campaign chief, Fred Duvall. 'It's coming into play for two reasons - Clinton is a different kind of Democrat and people are rejecting Bush. This is a must-win state for Bush - to win the election he has to succeed here. We can lose here and still win nationally.'

The Democrats' own polling shows a Clinton lead in the state of 6 to 12 per cent, which would narrow to between 2 and 5 per cent if Ross Perot re-enters the race, as seems likely.

At a recent Denver rally, Mr Clinton drew an enthusiastic crowd of 30,000. Two days before, Mr Bush had managed only 4,000.

Ron and Rhonda Hanson have a two-bedroomed house in Evergreen, a picturesque town 30 miles west of Denver in the Rocky Mountain foothills, on the outer edge of Jefferson County. The second largest in the state, the county is packed with affluent Denver commuters and is traditionally heavily Republican. But here, as in suburbs across the United States, Mr Bush is losing support. 'I don't know if it's all Bush's fault, but I just don't know that he'll ever be able to change things. Clinton might', said Ron, 37. A computer scientist, he has been out of work twice since voting for Mr Bush in 1988. He and his wife have delayed having children until their future is more certain. Ron is still cautious about Mr Clinton - he was irritated by his unwillingness to give a straight answer to questions in the spring on pot-smoking - and has recorded the Clinton campaign advertisements on tape and sent off for a copy of the Clinton-Gore economic proposals.

The economy aside, the Hansons are influenced by another issue potent among Coloradans - the environment. Three-quarters of the state's voters describe themselves as environmentalists. In winter, the drive to work from Evergreen offers a visual reminder of what is at stake, with central Denver under a heavy brown smog. 'I don't like it when Bush says it's either the economy or the environment; it doesn't have to be like that,' remarked Ron, referring to an election pledge by the President to remove protection from the rare spotted owl in the north- west to save logging jobs. Environmentalists are attracted by Mr Gore, whose recent book, Earth in the Balance, is selling well here.

At the Jefferson County Republican headquarters, a little closer to Denver, the party secretary, Nine Kite, confesseed that the outlook was 'scary'. Since mid-August there have been 3,800 new registrations in the area for the Democrats and only 1,200 for the Republicans. Her own polling suggests the President will only scrape home in the county where he should normally wallop the Democrats. 'He may win in this county, but not with the kind of lead he'll need to win the state.'

Ms Kite attributes her party's difficulties to Mr Clinton's appeal as a moderate - 'You couldn't elect a liberal Democrat in this state, much less in this county' - and to the ascendancy among Republicans of the religious right and the anti-abortionists. Five Republican members of the Colorado State House have been ousted in primaries by right-wing fundamentalists.

'We've lost a lot of people because of the narrow-mindedness of that whole thing. Frankly, I'm appalled. I do believe we're getting to the point where we're going to create a Hitler-type of situation. I can tell you a lot of people are switching,' said Ms Kite, who supports abortion rights. None of her friends is in the pro-choice movement, though, as Republicans, they will vote for Mr Bush.

There is another, hidden factor working for Mr Clinton in this state - demographics. Attracted by big skies and a recovering local economy, professional people are flooding into Colorado, mostly from the West Coast. About 33,000 have settled here in the past six months. Many are ardent liberals and natural Democrats.