Western Voters Could be Up for Grabs for Obama and McCain

Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico are among the battleground states this cycle
By Liz Halloran
Posted August 9, 2008
MELVILLE, MONT. Dennis McDonald keeps a rifle in his office for taking aim at coyotes that mosey onto his 25,000-acre ranch and harass the cattle and quarter horses he raises. On his desk, stacks of paperwork from cattlemen’s groups compete for space with livestock auction schedules. And a colossal stuffed moose head presides over the rambling home he shares with his wife, Sharon, and three dogs.
This lean, Kansas-born rancher seems straight out of a John Ford western but with a twist: A San Francisco lawyer and activist in an earlier life, McDonald, 64, is head of the state’s resurgent Democratic Party. And that makes the proprietor of Open Spear Ranch in central Montana the point man for Barack Obama in Big Sky Country. Over the coming weeks, it will largely be up to McDonald and Brian Schweitzer, who four years ago became the state’s first Democratic governor in 16 years to help convince the overwhelmingly white, pro-gun, libertarian-inclined voters here that it’s the young African-American Democrat they want in the White House. Not their fellow westerner Republican John McCain, who turns 72 this month.
“We’re going to deliver the state of Montana for him I promised,” says McDonald, who spent the July 4th holiday with Obama, 47, and his family in Butte. It was Obama’s fourth visit to the state, where he thumped Sen. Hillary Clinton in the June 3 Democratic primary. Four years ago, McDonald’s boast would have seemed folly. President Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry here by 20 percentage points. In 2000, Bush buried former Vice President Al Gore by more than 100,000 votes, 240,178 to 137,126. And no Democrat has won here in a two-person presidential matchup since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. (In a three-way race in 1992, Bill Clinton, with 37.6 percent of the vote, eked out victory over Republican George H. W. Bush and independent Ross Perot.)
Western sensibilities.┬áThe McCain camp has been banking on that history. McCain has been so confident he’ll pick up Montana’s three electoral votes that he has yet to visit the state or establish a presence. And he has no plans to lay out serious campaign cash here. “We don’t need to,” says one top adviser. The campaign, which will rely on limited public campaign funding, has made the calculation that resources would be better spent in places with big electoral troves like Ohio, Florida, and Michigan.
But Obama, parsing the electoral map, has sensed opportunity out west, and he has a rich supply of private donations to go after those voters. Party leaders pushed for the convention to be held in Denver, and the Democrat has been pouring money and staff into Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. Obama even hopes to make a race of it in McCain’s home state of Arizona. A recent poll showed him neck and neck with McCain in Montana (Obama had a small lead in early July), in a dead heat with McCain in Colorado and Nevada, and leading in New Mexico. Obama has been targeting those states with television ads since mid-June. McCain holds the edge in Arizona and is expected to dominate in deep-red Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho, where Bush smothered Kerry in 2004 by margins ranging from 39 to 46 percentage points.
The McCain camp acknowledges it has a fight on its hands in Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico but is confident about keeping other Mountain West states red with little investment. Montana state Senate Minority Leader Corey Stapleton, a Republican, says ignoring his state is fine, as long as McCain has a winning national game plan. But Stapleton, who, like McCain, is a Naval Academy graduate, says he’s still waiting for McCain’s campaign to gel. “We’re reaching a point where multiple things are going to have to happen,” he says. “They need to paint a contrast that McCain has the DNA to make decisions and make them quickly, and Obama is an inexperienced candidate with left-of-center views.” The gun issue, he adds, will hurt Obama. Obama, who has been endorsed by the moderate American Hunters and Shooters Association, received an F rating from the National Rifle Association for supporting gun control measures. McCain has an NRA