Western Democrats gather here on Saturday with two major tasks: interview candidates for head of the Democratic National Committee (search), and chart a course to improve the party's prospects across this mostly red-state, pro-gun region.

While most of the Rocky Mountain and Sunbelt states went for President Bush in November, the Democrats picked up some state and local offices, and say the region holds great promise for them, with its booming population and growing number of Hispanic voters (search).

"Democrats have lost the South, so we have to look for another field to mine," said Arizona Democratic chairman Jim Pedersen. "And here is where the opportunity is."

To succeed in the region, Western Democratic activists said, the party must better understand the West's pressing concerns, including land use, water and urban sprawl. They also must frame traditional Democratic issues such as education and health care in language that speaks broadly to Western voters, activists said.

Most of the candidates running to succeed outgoing DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe (search) are expected to come to Sacramento to make their pitch to the Democratic state activists from across the West. The candidates include Howard Dean, former Reps. Tim Roemer of Indiana and Martin Frost of Texas, and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.

"What we need in the DNC chair is somebody who has a strategy beyond the top-tier 18 states," said Utah Democratic chairman Donald Dunn, referring to the states targeted by John Kerry in 2004. "And we need a message that works for Westerners — on environmental issues, land use and the perception that Democrats want to take your guns away."

Last fall, even Utah, where President Bush won 71 percent of the vote in November, saw some important Democratic victories. Voters in Salt Lake County elected a Democratic mayor, and the state's sole Democratic congressman, Jim Matheson, was handily re-elected.

Democrats also enjoyed significant gains in Montana, where Bush defeated Kerry by 20 percentage points. The state elected its first Democratic governor in 20 years, Brian Schweitzer, and Democrats captured control of both houses of the Legislature.

Montana Democratic Party executive director Brad Martin credited strong grassroots organizing and a concerted effort to speak of "family values."

Arizona and New Mexico have Democratic governors, while Democrats in Colorado in 2004 regained control of both houses of the Legislature and picked up a Senate and House seat previously held by Republicans. Nevada Sen. Harry Reid became Senate minority leader after South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle lost his bid for re-election.

"Going forward, Southwestern states will be the new Florida and Ohio," said Antonio Gonzalez of the Willie C. Velasquez Institute, a Hispanic advocacy group.