In less than a month, Colorado has moved from the fringes of the presidential campaign to dead center.

A weak economy, the state's growing Hispanic population and a competitive Senate race have made Colorado one of Sen. John Kerry's (search) top targets. It's one of a handful of states won by President Bush in 2000 that Kerry hopes to turn Democratic — others are Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Kerry had curtailed his spending in Colorado until mid-September polls showed that the state's voters were evenly split. Republicans say Bush still has the edge, but they are nervously watching.

Both sides also have their eyes on a ballot initiative that would apportion the state's nine Electoral Colleges votes based on the popular vote rather than awarding them all to the candidate who comes in first.

Had the proposal been in place four years ago, Democrat Al Gore (search) would have won enough electoral votes from Colorado to claim the presidency. Bush won the state.

Lawyers for both campaigns are preparing for a legal fight if the measure passes, because whoever wins the state's popular vote won't want to split the electoral votes.

Colorado has lost 68,800 jobs since Bush took office, and the unemployment rate has increased from 2.6 percent to 5.1 percent. The Republican-run government has slashed state budgets, including money for social services.

The state's problems include the bursting of the high-tech bubble, a tourism drop and drought. But the Democratic nominee is blaming Bush.

Republicans have a huge advantage over Democrats in registered voters, but independents outnumber GOP voters.

Colorado hasn't been won by a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992. Even then, Clinton needed the help of Ross Perot (search), who won 23 percent of the vote.

BY THE NUMBERS:

90,000 — Hispanics who have moved to the heavily populated Front Range over the past three years, a region Kerry must win to have any chance of carrying Colorado.

33,000 — Estimated number of Coloradans without health insurance.

36 percent — Residents with bachelor's degrees, among the tops in the nation.

40,000 — Potential first-time voters who have registered in Denver since January.

34,568 acres — Area open to skiers and snowboarders, more than available in Utah, Vermont and New York combined.

QUOTABLE:

— "My main gripe with Bush is the Iraq war. It was done, in my way of thinking, simply to get oil reserves for this country and for him to get some personal recognition. I'm going to vote for Mr. Kerry. Not that he's going to get things done faster or better, but he had the (courage) to stand up and speak the way he did." — Jesse Martinez of Denver, a 70-year-old Korean War veteran.

— "There's a good chance we're going to get hit again and I think a lot of that will depend on who's in office next time. I'm very concerned and scared. I think a lot of people are frightened and praying to God that 9/11 doesn't happen again and that the economy doesn't go down." — Denver business owner Carole Feely, 58, who is leaning toward Kerry.

NOTABLE:

Voters could send brothers Ken Salazar and John Salazar, both Democrats, to Congress on the same day. Elder brother John is running for the House, while attorney general Ken is seeking the state's open Senate seat. Both are from tiny Manassa, home of famed heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey.

WHAT TO WATCH ON ELECTION NIGHT:

President Bush is counting on solid support in Colorado Springs, which is dominated by conservative Christians and military installations and where Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2-1. If he falters here or fails to win swing votes in the upper middle-class Denver suburbs of Arapahoe and Jefferson counties, Kerry has a chance.

Opponents have promised an immediate court challenge if voters approve a measure that would scrap Colorado's winner-take-all system for Electoral College votes and instead award the state's nine votes based on the popular vote.

IN COLORADO FOUR YEARS AGO:

Al Gore won Denver 2-to-1 but Bush took the sprawling suburbs of Jefferson and Arapahoe counties and coasted to an easy win. According to exit polls, voters said their financial situation was better than it was in 1996 and the economy and jobs were the most important issues. In January 2001, when Bush took office, Colorado's unemployment rate was 2.5 percent. It has more than doubled to 5.1 percent.