Colorado: Wild West, Wild Voters

Hispanic voters playing a key role in presidential politics.

Mitt Romney holds a baby during a campaign stop at Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum in Pueblo, Colo., Sept. 24, 2012.
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DENVER – As with many who voted for President Barack Obama four years ago, some Coloradans are disappointed with the still struggling economy and his inability—or unwillingness—to deliver on promises he made. Colorado's unemployment rate of 8.2 percent in August has hovered just above the national average.

Jeff Rodriguez, former building contractor now working at a golf course and volunteer with the Colorado Hispanic Republicans, says at first he thought it was his fault his business failed.

"I was self-employed and in 2008 because the economy tanked, like dominoes, everyone started calling and saying, 'I have to hold off' (on planned renovations)," he says. "Then all of a sudden the phones just quit ringing. I went out of business. And I thought it was my fault for not having a business education."

So Rodriguez has gone back to college to earn a bachelor's degree in business management.

"But it's like, this ain't my fault, it's the government's fault," he says.

Rodriguez was one of hundreds at a Hispanics for Romney event featuring popular conservative Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is of Cuban descent. Crammed into an open room in the upper levels of a rodeo arena, many said they would support Republican nominee Mitt Romney despite his more conservative positions on immigration reform because their top issue was the economy.

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Obama promised to cut the deficit in half and reform immigration, Rodriguez says, and he failed to do so even when he held Democratic majorities in Congress.

His top hope for a Romney administration?

"To keep his promises, that's number one," he says. "To get everybody back on track. His beliefs and values line up with mine, he's a businessman as well and business pretty much runs the country and if we ran it like a business I think we'd be a lot better off."

In order to win the state, Romney will have to hold down Obama's margins with Latinos, who make up one in five residents of Colorado, and support the president more than two-to-one in recent polling.

Though disappointment in the Hispanic community over lack of comprehensive immigration reform runs deep, the Obama administration's announcement earlier this year to defer prosecution for some young illegals if they pursue a college education or enroll in the military has helped heal the wound.

"I wasn't in their situation, but I know a lot of people who were and the deferred childhood plan, it really helps a lot of people finish their education, go on to the military and serve the country they stand for," says Denver resident Maciel Molina at an Obama rally here.

"It really provided a boost for me to vote for him again," the Metro State College student says. "A lot of people were upset because he didn't take (immigration reform) through Congress, but everything he takes to Congress, Republicans don't pass it."

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There are other pieces of the demographic puzzle that make this Western state a crucial presidential battleground.

The conservative religious political organization led by Lou Dobbs, Focus on the Family, calls Colorado Springs home, as does the United States Air Force Academy. And while Hispanics (who overwhelmingly support Democrats) traditionally have lower voter registration and turnout rates than other racial groups, and the enduring influence of evangelicals in rural Colorado is fading, according to local experts, their presence helps make Colorado a ripe target for Republicans.

Most of the population flanks the I-25 corridor, a north-south highway that runs from Fort Collins to Pueblo near the eastern border of the Rockies. The rural areas are still dotted with cow herds and farms, but the booming industry in the state is energy production. Colorado really does embody the 'all of the above' energy approach both Obama and Romney espouse, with companies thriving both on the green side, with wind and solar, and the less environmentally-appealing gas and oil side, with hydraulic fracking playing a role.