The Democratic National Convention won’t exactly be in friendly territory when the curtain rises in Denver on Monday. Colorado is one of the hottest battleground states in the country, and as pundits point to the West as a critical region for the next president to win, the Centennial State, with its nine Electoral College votes, is rising to the top of the list.
Barack Obama was declared the Democratic nominee for president on Wednesday in Denver after the New Mexico delegation stepped aside to allow Obama’s former rival, Hillary Clinton, to ask delegates to name him the first black presidential candidate from a major party.
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama made a surprise appearance at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night, one night before he is to appear at Invesco Field at Mile High to a massive crowd.
Top Western Democrats took the podium at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Wednesday, highlighting the region’s resurgence in the party. Few, though, made reference to the region they call home. From Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., to Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Wednesday night featured some of the biggest Democratic names in the West.
As gas prices rose, so did John McCain’s popularity. That’s no coincidence, agreed a panel of environmental thinkers gathered a few blocks away from the Democratic National Convention in Denver. And, they said, that’s the Democrats fault. “Average people paying $4 at the pump were saying, ‘OK, what’s the plan?’ and there wasn’t a plan,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a former two-term governor.
The Latino vote has never been as important or as heavily sought as in this election. That’s particularly true in the West, where critical battleground states also have large Hispanic populations. “The Latino vote is going to elect the next president,” says Federico Peña, the former Denver mayor and member of President Clinton’s cabinet who serves as co-chairman of Obama’s campaign.
Thursday may have been Barack Obama’s turn to light up the Democratic National Convention, but it was Colorado’s day in the sun. “It’s fitting to have the eyes of the nation on Colorado,” said Rep. Mark Udall, whose father Mo made an unsuccessful presidential bid and addressed the Democratic National Convention 32 years earlier. “It’s fitting that the change we need in Washington starts here in the Rocky Mountain West.”
The Democratic National Convention is in the West, and to at least some degree, the West is in the convention. As Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper greeted the delegates, he made much of the West and the lessons it offers Democrats – and not necessarily the ones you’d expect. “Remember,” Hickenlooper said. “There were a lot more barn-raisings than there were shootouts in the Old West.”
Marge Paraham wasn’t expecting Barack Obama to stop by her T-shirt stand in downtown Denver. And he didn’t. But it sure looked like he did. Meet Gerardo Puisseaux, a Cuban immigrant who shares Obama’s striking appearance, even his charisma, but not his gift for words. Not in English, anyway. Puisseau speaks mostly Spanish.
The Democratic National Convention is in the West, and to at least some degree, the West is in the convention.
As Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper greeted the delegates, he made much of the West and the lessons it offers Democrats – and not necessarily the ones you’d expect.
“Remember,” Hickenlooper said. “There were a lot more barn-raisings than there were shootouts in the Old West.”
It was the success of Western Democrats in the last elections that led to the choice of Denver to host the Democratic National Convention. Democrats swept major seats in Colorado, and they gained major ground in elections across the West.
That has prompted party strategists to look at Western Democrats, those straight-talkin’, cowboy hat-wearin’, big boot-stompin’ moderates as a blueprint for success in traditionally red states. Longtime Republican strongholds like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico are especially in play this election, even though Democrat Barack Obama is likely to face off against a Westerner, John McCain, of Arizona.
“I think the Rocky Mountain West is the future of the Democratic Party,” says Julian Langness, 22, a delegate from Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
As the convention got under way, a video played to delegates, highlighting some of the West’s Democratic success stories, many of them posing on ranches, by alpine streams or with a Rocky Mountain backdrop. Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sen. Max Baucus. Nevada Sen. Harry Reid. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and Sen. Ken Salazar.
Hickenlooper tapped into some of the usual Western stereotypes, but he also looked to different lessons from the West. He quoted raft guide wisdom from Rocky Mountain whitewater: “When the water is rough, everybody paddles.” Denver’s mile-high altitude, he said, gave it a good perspective to “take the long view.”
And like Obama’s core message, Hickenlooper suggested, the West has always been about change.
Hickenlooper offered himself as an example. He began his career as a geologist for Denver’s booming oil business before the oil business went bust and he was out of work. He reinvented himself as a successful businessman in a region that has prided itself on reinventing itself. He pointed a few blocks from the convention in Denver’s stylish Lower Downtown, or LoDo, neighborhood. Not long ago it was an off-limits dive. “Now it’s the envy of the country,” Hickenlooper says.
How Denver would be depicted in the convention was reportedly in dispute. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., a fourth-generation Coloradan, led a movement that pressed for a rodeo to anchor the event. Hickenlooper refused, reports the National Journal, preferring a view of collaboration in the Old West over rugged individualism. (DeGette, reportedly, is presenting every delegate with a Western shirt, designed by Brokeback Mountain outfitters Rockmount Ranch Wear, instead.)
The “collaborative spirit of the West represents the future of American politics,” Hickenlooper told the crowd.
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Thursday may have been Barack Obama’s turn to light up the Democratic National Convention, but it was Colorado’s day in the sun.
“It’s fitting to have the eyes of the nation on Colorado,” said Rep. Mark Udall, whose father Mo made an unsuccessful presidential bid and addressed the Democratic National Convention 32 years earlier. “It’s fitting that the change we need in Washington starts here in the Rocky Mountain West. It was hope that first carried early Americans here, not know what lay ahead but knowing they must go forward, just as we must go forward. And like those early Americans, we believe this is a land of fresh starts and boundless optimism. We look to our mountains and prairies, our wide-open skies, and we see the limitless possibility that is America.”
Udall, who hails from a family of Western politicians, is engaged in a tough senate battle. His cousin Tom, a New Mexico congressman, spoke on Wednesday. Udall quoted from his father as he addressed the crowd at Invesco Field at Mile High.
“‘Every generation has had to change this country to make it work, and we Democrats have always led that change,’” Udall said. “Those words are just as true today. My dad would be so proud to see a new generation gathered here in Colorado – the heart of the West – ready to lead that change.”
Udall also summoned the words of revered Western writer Wallace Stegner, and called for “leaders to match these mountains.”
In recognition of the convention’s home state, a string of Colorado Democratic politicians took the podium.
“This year the road to the White House cuts straight through the heart of the American West,” said a hoarse Gov. Bill Ritter.
It’s not just home state pride. Throughout the convention, Democratic leaders underscored Western battleground states long in Republican hands that could tip the balance in this election.
Ritter underscored Western and Plains states recently led by Democratic governors that were previously in GOP hands – Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas and Oklahoma. Denver Councilwoman Elbra Wedgeworth, president of the host committee that fought to bring the convention to Denver, rattled off Western states that could prove to be battlegrounds.
“We call this the New West,” Wedgeworth said.
Wedgeworth and Ritter, followed by Reps. Ed Perlmutter, John Salazar and Diana DeGette, took the stage Thursday afternoon before Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean. Dean touted his “50-state strategy,” a move that may have done as much as anything to invigorate flagging Democratic organizations in the West and other areas.
Challenging the conventional wisdom of focusing on big states with lots of electoral votes, Dean urged Democrats to target even less populous states. As discontent with Republicans and the Bush administration grew, GOP strongholds, including many areas in the West, turned Democratic for the first time in years. Dean credited organizers with reinvigorating what had been a struggling party.
“We knew if we knocked on doors, people would respect us and they would vote for us and they did,” Dean said. “Because you did these things, we today are competitive in all 50 states.”
Perlmutter attacked Republican candidate John McCain’s energy strategy and called for more renewables. DeGette took on health care and other issues. Salazar, a potato seed farmer, underscored rural issues.
“We need a president who understands the values of rural America,” said an unusually animated Salazar. His brother, Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., spoke the previous day.
Like Udall, Ritter tapped into the symbolism of the West as a place of hope to mirror Obama’s message.
“The wide-open West isn’t just about wide open spaces,” Ritter said. “It’s about the possibilities of American opportunity. It’s about a set of American ideas that offer hope and unity and the promise of change. It’s about binding people together with common goals, shared visions and the pioneering spirit that defines all of America.”
Obama lookalike Gerardo Puisseaux hams it up for a TV crew at the Democratic National Convention. David Frey photo.
Marge Paraham wasn’t expecting Barack Obama to stop by her T-shirt stand in downtown Denver.
And he didn’t. But it sure looked like he did.
No, that wasn’t the Democratic presidential nominee mugging for the TV camera and hawking T-shirts to passersby. It was his striking likeness. Meet Gerardo Puisseaux, a Cuban immigrant who shares Obama’s striking appearance, even his charisma, but not his gift for words. Not in English, anyway. Puisseau speaks mostly Spanish.
“Everybody thinks I’m Obama,” Puisseaux says in Spanish as he takes a break from his work. His job is joking and shocking passersby on camera for Miami’s Spanish language America TeVe, which plays to a largely Cuban audience.
Before becoming a Cuban Obama impersonator, Puisseaux was a construction worker after he won a rare American visa in a lottery system to leave the island.
Puisseaux showed up at the TV station about three months ago, and producers saw his potential. Since then, he’s been appearing on the show “Pellizcame que Estoy Soñando.” That’s “Pinch me, I’m Dreaming.”
This week he’s been making the rounds at the Democratic National Convention, causing whiplash as he goes.
“The New York Times interviewed him. CNN. Everyone is saying, ‘Contact us!’” says show producer Flavia Azar.
Puisseaux cruised Denver’s 16th Street Mall this week, where he stopped by Paraham’s souvenir stand (parked beside the joint where Obama running mate Joe Biden stopped for a pulled pork sandwich on Monday. Talk about a prime location.)
“I needed to take a doubletake,” says Paraham, an Obama supporter from Toledo, Ohio who came to sell souvenirs and take in the atmosphere at the convention.
“I thought it was my honey,” she says. “I knew he’d find me.”
The Latino vote has never been as important or as heavily sought as in this election. That’s particularly true in the West, where critical battleground states also have large Hispanic populations.
“The Latino vote is going to elect the next president,” says Federico Peña, the former Denver mayor and member of President Clinton’s cabinet who serves as co-chairman of Obama’s campaign.
Like Peña, many Latino leaders say the next president won’t take the White House without them. Yet even some of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s supporters say he hasn’t done enough to win over Latino voters.
Obama is doing “not well at all” in attracting Latino voters, says Juan Andrade, president of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute. Western states like Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona are up for grabs, and Andrade says, those states also have large Hispanic populations.
“I don’t think he can win Colorado and Nevada and Arizona and New Mexico without the Latino vote,” says Lawrence Martinez, vice president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.
The increasing attention paid to Latino voters mirrors not only the growth of the Hispanic population, but also the narrowing of the American electorate. As political strategists court every vote in a string of narrowly-divided presidential races, every segment in ever state becomes critical.
Michelle Obama spent Wednesday morning pumping up the Hispanic Caucus with chants of “Sí se puede!” The words are a translation of Obama’s campaign motto, “Yes we can!” But they also harken back to the rallying cry of Chicano activists.
On Wednesday night, Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., a prominent Hispanic Senator, is pegged to deliver Obama’s nomination speech, one night after Hillary Clinton, who enjoyed strong support among Latinos, made a plea for her supporters to back Obama.
“This nation is going to go the way Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado go, and that’s the Latino vote,” says New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former presidential candidate who backed Obama after dropping out of the race.
A recent Pew Hispanic Center survey of 2,015 Hispanic voters found Latinos supported Obama over McCain 66 percent to 23 percent. It found Latinos had “moved sharply into the Democratic camp” over the last two years, “reversing a pro-GOP tide” earlier.
Obama faces a number of hurdles in winning the Latino vote, though. Some who backed Clinton may not cast votes for Obama. Others will back McCain, who has had strong Latino support in his home state of Arizona. Many Latino residents aren’t citizens, even if they’re legal residents. Some who are citizens aren’t registered to vote, prompting a number of voter registration initiatives in Latino communities.
Both Obama and McCain have launched efforts aimed at attracting Latino voters that dwarf those of past presidential campaigns. Federico de Jesus, director of Hispanic communications for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., estimates the Obama campaign is spending $20 million on Latino outreach, more than double what Democrat John Kerry and President Bush spent combined four years ago.
“Before the road to the White House could have been Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada. I think (this time) it’s going to be the Southwestern United States and Florida, and the Latino vote is going to be decisive.”
McCain’s strategy includes a massive advertising campaign aimed at Latinos in the battleground states of Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. Obama plans to roll out Latino versions of his Camp Obama volunteer training sessions in the same states, plus Florida.
Peña dismisses critics who say the Obama campaign has been slow to court Latinos.
“It’s a misconception,” he says, “because I’ve been involved over a year.”
Obama’s Latino supporters look to Peña to help deliver the Latino vote. Peña claims primary victories among Latino voters in Colorado and some other key states, but he admits losing out to Clinton in other key spots, including California, Texas, Nevada and Puerto Rico.
“Since the primary we’ve beefed up our operation,” Peña says.
Some Hispanic Democratic leaders believe Obama’s personal story will win over Latinos. Leticia Van de Putte, a Texas state senator and co-chairwoman of the Democratic National Convention, credits Michelle Obama’s speech with helping put a personal face on Obama, a move she thinks will help lure Latino voters.
“I think all we have to do is to know Senator Obama,” she says. “To know him and to know his family.”
Sen. Salazar says Obama’s personal story will resonate with Latinos. “I think he needs to just tell his story of struggle,” he says.
His brother, Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., agrees, saying Obama needs to represent himself as a “positive role model.”
The Salazar family, however, has made some unusual headlines recently. Their cousin Silverio Salazar, a longtime Democratic activist in Pueblo, has resigned his party posts complaining that Obama is ignoring Democrats. “He doesn’t even know we’re around,” he told reporters.
Rep. John Salazar, writes off the flap as “just a personality conflict.”
“Latinos are really excited about Barack Obama,” he says. “They see him as a new opportunity.”
The issue strikes at a chord within the Hispanic community, though.
“I think there’s still a little skepticism about what has he done for Hispanics? What has he done for the country?” says Roger Molinar, of Denver, regional director for the National Image Inc., a Latino civil rights organization. He worries Latinos simply won’t vote.
Latino leaders say that could destroy Obama’s chance at victory.
“This is the key to winning the White House,” Andrade says.
As gas prices rose, so did John McCain’s popularity. That’s no coincidence, agreed a panel of environmental thinkers gathered a few blocks away from the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
And, they said, that’s the Democrats fault.
“Average people paying $4 at the pump were saying, ‘OK, what’s the plan?’ and there wasn’t a plan,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a former two-term governor.
Republican candidate McCain had a plan: “Drill here, drill now.” Democrats scoffed at that, but their plans seemed poised to raise people’s energy bills, the group said.
“In an environment in which, frankly, the American public and the American electorate continues to be a lot more concerned about energy prices than about climate change, that is a losing proposition,” said Ted Nordhaus, who co-wrote the essay “The Death of Environmentalism,” which sent a shockwave through the environmental community.
The panel was part of a two-day session on the future of environmentalism presented by the liberal magazine The New Republic. The magazine called in leading environmental thinkers to talk about what public policy can – and can’t – do to address environmental issues like global warming.
It was one of a host of events taking place in the orbit of the Democratic National Convention. Delegates, and in some cases, non-delegates, can choose from an array of lunches, dinners, parties, panels and protests, all capitalizing on the pinnacle of Democratic politics taking place at the Pepsi Center.
The New Republic brought legislators like Nelson, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and put them alongside the likes of Nordhaus and Sierra Club President Carl Pope. Despite whatever difference they may have, a group gathered on Tuesday at Denver’s famed Tattered Cover bookstore agreed widely.
Fixing the energy crisis shouldn’t foist higher fuel bills on people, they said, and the people have to be brought along with environmental fixes.
And while Republicans managed to capitalize on energy issues, and Democrats took stabs at them, outside the presidential debates, the two sides don’t seem to far apart they said.
In some ways, Pope said, the issue has less to do with politics than a lack of innovation. Plumbers looking for a fuel efficient pickup truck will have trouble finding one he said. The average homeowner in the average subdivision will have trouble buying a home with an efficient heater installed.
Not all the fixes to climate change are difficult, he said. They’re not all political. And they’re not all costly.
“If we do this right,” Pope said, “Our energy bills will go down and not up.”