PHOENIX – Hispanics and transplanted white voters are swelling the populations of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, offering hope to both John Kerry (search) and President Bush (search) in the hot, new campaign battleground.
Four years after Democrat Al Gore (search) ceded most of the region to Bush, Kerry is taking a multimillion-dollar gamble that he can improve the poor turnout of Hispanics and reduce Bush's share of their votes.
Forced to defend GOP turf, the president is counting on the booming suburbs of Phoenix, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, N.M., and Denver to keep Kerry at bay. These communities are awash with Republican and independent voters (search) who moved from California or the Midwest in search of cheaper homes, warmer weather and lower taxes.
"If you could somehow slide Utah out of the way and slip Colorado in its place, you would call this our four-corner strategy," Kerry adviser Tad Devine said.
"If we can compete out there effectively, we'll be putting Bush on the defensive," Devine said. "If we could win two or three of them, that could determine the election."
Should Kerry manage to reclaim the 21 states plus the District of Columbia won by Gore in 2000 — no easy task — he would still be 10 electoral votes short of the required 270.
Those votes could come from Florida or another traditional swing state such as Ohio or Missouri. But Kerry, unlike Gore, has enough money to hedge his bets. In case he fails elsewhere, Kerry will compete in the Southwest and Colorado.
Bush won Arizona by 6 percentage points in 2000 and holds a slight lead over Kerry in polls today. The state has 10 electoral votes and a popular Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano.
Nevada went to Bush by 4 percentage points four years ago. Its five electoral votes are up for grabs. Kerry has an issue that Gore did not — an unpopular radioactive waste project at Yucca Mountain.
Sig Rogich, a Bush supporter, accused fellow Nevada Republicans of "political lunacy" for adopting a Yucca Mountain plank in the party platform, thus reminding voters that Bush approved the dump site.
Colorado backed Bush over Gore by 9 percentage points. Polls show the president leading Kerry. Though Democrats hope Senate candidate Ken Salazar increases Hispanic turnout, the odds are still stacked in Bush's favor.
"It's tough for a Democratic presidential candidate to win Colorado," said Salazar's campaign manager, Jim Carpenter.
Independent state pollster Paul Talmey said of Kerry's team, "I think they're wasting their money."
Gore won New Mexico by fewer than 500 votes. Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson expects another close race.
The Southwest states have gained jobs under Bush, but Colorado has lost 104,000. Other issues worth watching include the government's response to forest fires, the impact of Bush's Medicare plan on older people, and a low supply of water.
Democrats will spend millions of dollars registering, pursuing and motivating Hispanics. But it may not be enough.
"They've not proven they can vote yet," said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat.
Nationwide, one-third of registered Hispanics vote. By comparison, two-thirds of registered blacks cast ballots.
Those Hispanics who do vote are becoming more open to GOP candidates. In 1996, Republican Bob Dole got just 21 percent of the Hispanic vote against President Clinton. Bush earned 35 percent in 2000, and a recent poll showed him at 39 percent this year.
America Coming Together, an interest group funded by Democratic donors, hopes to increase Hispanic turnout by 7 percent in the Southwest or increase Kerry's share of the Hispanic vote — to 70 percent, an increase of 5 or so percentage points from Gore's take.
Kerry needs to hit those marks to win the Southwest,
"If there were ever a time Bush could have success among Hispanics, it would be now," said Brian Sanderoff, a New Mexico pollster. "They're very patriotic, so Iraq could play well. They tend to be socially conservative, so same-sex marriage is an issue for them."
But other issues favor Democrats. Education, jobs and health care are the top priorities of Hispanic voters, polls show, and Hispanics tend to view Democrats more favorably than Republicans on those issues.
Still, the presumptive nominee has not solidified his ties to the community.
"Clearly, Kerry has got to do more than he's doing," said Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the House's No. 3 Democrat. Menendez urged Kerry to advertise in Spanish and place more Hispanics in key campaign positions.
There is grumbling among Republicans, too. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said a lack of action on immigration reform has hurt the White House's standing among Hispanics.
"I think right now the president has an advantage, but I would also say it's a narrow advantage and there's no doubt the demographics of this state are changing," said McCain, chairman of Bush's Arizona campaign.
McCain pointed to a poll that showed Bush winning about 30 percent of the Hispanic vote in Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, down several points from 2000. Bush's own strategists say he needs 40 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide.
There is hope for Bush in swing-voting Hispanics like Michael Lebaril. The 54-year-old roofer took a break from his union job in Avondale, Ariz., to say he's "a bit perturbed with the president" over the Iraq war. "But, you know, he's doing what needs to be done, so I'm sticking by him, I think."
Lebaril voted for Bush's father, then Clinton and now Bush. He likes the Democrat's economic policies and backs Bush's opposition to gay marriages.
Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican who won the Hispanic vote in 2002, said there are more potential swing voters in the Hispanic community than most politicians realize. "These are not monolithic voters," he said.
The same can be said for whites, many of them retirees, who migrate to these states from California and the Midwest. They as much as Hispanics helped turn Arizona, home of conservative icon Barry Goldwater, into a political battleground.
Napolitano won over Republicans and independents by supporting the death penalty and saying she would be pro-business. Had it not been for her appeal to the Arizona exurbs, "I would not be sitting behind this desk," the governor said in her Phoenix office.
But Kerry may have trouble replicating Napolitano's success, at least with women like Tracy McCall, 32. A transplant from California, the mother of two said she was impressed with Napolitano but will be voting Republican in November.
Standing outside a Costco in the Phoenix suburb of Avondale, McCall wrapped her knuckles on her blue 2001 Jeep Cherokee and said, "This is why I'll vote for Bush." The president's tax cuts helped her buy the car and gave her the financial cushion to quit her job and stay home with her children
"Bush changed my life."