SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
If Mitt Romney is elected the 45th president of the United States tonight, then he can remember Colorado as the state that provided him his highest high and lowest low on his road to the White House.
The state also provided President Barack Obama with his worst day of the campaign, but if he wins, Colorado Republicans who derailed Romney in the winter will be one of the many unheralded reasons that Obama succeeded.
While the campaign has seemed like a yearlong blur of candidate rallies and negative ads, it really comes down to four pivotal days in Colorado – some unnoticed, some hyped for months in advance – when the state had influence far beyond its nine electoral votes.
It started with a $14 breakfast buffet in suburban Denver.
Wednesday, Feb. 1
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum arrived at Garcia’s Mexican restaurant in suburban Denver in a rented Ford pickup. The occasion was breakfast with the Arapahoe County Republican Men’s Club, and it looked about as fancy as a campaign event for a county treasurer’s race.
But Santorum’s words that day echoed far beyond the banquet room.
He launched into a fierce attack on Romney, who was then the Republican frontrunner and had just beaten Newt Gingrich in the Florida primary.
Santorum recited a long list of ways that Obama’s health-care law – which most Republicans hate – is identical to the one pushed by Romney in Massachusetts.
“Why would the people of Colorado nominate somebody from our party who would give away the defining issue of the race?” Santorum said.
Prophesying the next nine months, Santorum said Romney’s background would give Obama’s campaign plenty of fodder for a negative campaign.
“The issue’s going to be about Mitt Romney’s credibility, not Barack Obama’s record,” Santorum said.
The pitch worked.
At the Republican caucus a week later, Santorum took 40 percent of the vote to Romney’s 35 percent. Santorum also won straw polls in Minnesota and Missouri that night, shattering Romney’s momentum from his Florida victory. With three weeks until the next primary, Republicans had to sweat about the identity of their candidate, instead of focusing on Obama.
Meanwhile, Obama’s campaign kept its fire focused squarely on Romney.
While Romney was campaigning for the caucus, Obama’s team was holding news conferences to paint Romney as a “corporate raider” who “lined his pockets by firing workers.” Romney’s Colorado loss gave them the rest of the winter to lay the groundwork for their negative campaign.
Friday, April 13
It was another unlucky day for Romney. But this time, it was Texas Rep. Ron Paul who stood in Romney’s way.
By this time, Romney had all but sewn up the nomination. But his Colorado supporters didn’t know they were walking into a trap at the congressional district assemblies that decide which Republican activists go to the party’s national convention.
National operatives from Paul’s campaign had quietly formed an alliance with Santorum supporters to deny Romney a majority of Colorado’s delegates.
Paul strategists identified supporters such as Todd King of Lewis and Luke Kirk of Bayfield and put them on an official Paul-Santorum ticket. The two Southwest Colorado men beat out stalwart Romney supporters.
It was part of Paul’s strategy to win majorities of delegates in at least five states so he could force a vote at the national convention in Tampa, Fla., in August. He fell just short.
But his supporters still caused a ruckus at the Republican National Convention. And when Romney began campaigning in Colorado, he spent his first trips shoring up support in reliably Republican areas such as Fort Lupton, Craig and Grand Junction, far away from the treasure trove of swing voters in Denver’s suburbs.
Two days before the Colorado caucus, Obama’s campaign manager sent out an email labelling Romney as “the most anti-woman candidate in a generation.” TV ads on the same theme continue even today.
Wednesday, Oct. 3
But all of Romney’s troubles in Colorado disappeared during the course of 90 minutes at the University of Denver.
In their first head-to-head debate, Romney shocked Obama with his appeals to moderate voters, and the president seemed unprepared to answer.
“The president spoke in empty platitudes. He had no vision for where he wanted to take the future,” Romney’s senior adviser Eric Fehrstrom said in “spin alley” after the debate.
That “no vision for the future” line became a standard part of Romney’s stump speech in the closing month of the campaign.
Obama recovered his footing the next morning at a rally at a Denver park.
“Last night, I met a very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney,” Obama said. “But it couldn’t have been the real Romney, because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts paid to the wealthy.”
But, for Obama, the damage was done. Romney began drawing larger crowds and even sold out the 10,000-seat Red Rocks amphitheater in Denver.
Polls showed that in one night in Denver, he had at last smoothed over the cracks in his Republican base that were so apparent on those crucial days last spring in Colorado.
Of course, the only day that really matters is today.
Today is when Colorado’s nine electoral votes get awarded. Based on late polling, it appears that Colorado plays an important role in Obama’s backup plan if he doesn’t win Ohio or Florida. For Romney, it’s a must-win if he can’t overtake the president in Ohio.
That’s why the candidates and their running mates held a combined total of 46 Colorado events, scrounging for votes. Obama even flirted with coming to Durango, Democratic sources say. First Lady Michelle Obama and Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, both made stops at Fort Lewis College.
La Plata County has two heated Republican vs. Democrat races for county commissioner.
There’s also one of the closest state House races in the state, where Durango Democrat Mike McLachlan is trying to unseat freshman Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio.
And Pueblo Democrat Sal Pace is trying to do the same in the U.S. House of Representatives to Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.
La Plata County, with its ballot full of competitive races, will be closely watched tonight, said Mike Stratton, the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote chieftain for the Western Slope.
“You’re living in ground zero of the 2012 presidential race, the 2012 congressional race, the 2012 legislative races,” Stratton said.
Joe Hanel/Durango Herald
Joe Hanel/Durango Herald file photo
SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald