By JULIE PACE, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — As President Barack Obama surveys damage from raging wildfires and thanks first responders in Colorado, he also will be seeking to show voters in one of the nation's most tightly contested political swing states that he is a compassionate leader who can command in a crisis.
Though Obama will spend just three hours Friday on the ground in Colorado, his cross-country dash underscores the enormous power of incumbency in an election year. The president has resources at his disposal that Republican challenger Mitt Romney simply can't compete with, from the ability to fly Air Force One anywhere in the country on short notice to the authority to dole out federal funds to help disaster-stricken states recover.
He declared "a major disaster" exists in the state early Friday and promised federal aid.
Obama will arrive midday in Colorado Springs, where officials say more than 30,000 people have been evacuated in what is now the most destructive wildfire in state history. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed by the blaze that has encroached on the state's second-largest city and threatened the U.S. Air Force Academy.
The White House says Obama is making the trip because he wants to get a firsthand look at the wildfire damage in order to see whether additional federal resources are necessary.
But election year political concerns also create an imperative for Obama to be on the ground.
Just over four months from Election Day, the contest in Colorado is very close, and Obama and Romney are each looking to swing the state in their favor anyway they can.
About 46 percent of registered voters backed Obama, 42 percent backed Romney and 8 percent were undecided in an NBC News/Marist poll conducted in late May.
Both sides are devoting significant money and manpower to the state, which tends to swing from one political party to the other in presidential elections. Obama easily carried Colorado in 2008. So did his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, in 2004.
Obama also has walked tornado-stricken streets in Missouri and Alabama, and met with flood victims in Tennessee, all states that voted against him in the 2008 presidential election.
Every decision the Obama White House makes to send the president to a disaster zone is done under the shadow of Bush's botched response to Hurricane Katrina, which irrevocably damaged his presidency.
Bush was widely criticized as detached and uncaring when he viewed the hurricane damage from the air rather than meeting with people on the ground. White House officials said at the time that they didn't want Bush's presence to distract from the recovery efforts.
Obama has faced some criticism that his trip to Colorado could divert time and resources away from the efforts to fight the fires.
"While President Obama certainly has the right to come to Colorado whenever he chooses, I believe his visit tomorrow will be a distraction from what has to be our only priority, which is containing and then defeating these fires," Bill Owens, the former Republican governor of Colorado, said.
But Colorado's current Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said Colorado officials from both parties support the president's visit.
"They said, 'You're right, this is not a political thing. This is what the president of the United States should be doing in a situation like this,'" Hickenlooper said.
Yet Colorado, with huge swaths of independent-minded voters, does hold significant political weight in November. In a tight election, the state's nine electoral votes could make the difference between a win or a loss.
The Obama campaign and a political action committee supporting him have spent more than $8 million in television advertisements in the state, according to Republican officials who track ad buys. Romney and outside groups backing his candidacy have spent over $4 million.
The NBC/Marist poll found that Obama has advantages with Colorado voters on social issues and national security, while Romney has the advantage on reducing the national debt. The majority of voters in Colorado say the economy is their top issue in the November, but are evenly split over which candidate would be better at handling the economy.