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In Hispanic-heavy Colorado, Obama must work to win

By Jeff Mason

DENVER (Reuters) - Though demographic trends lean in his favor, President Barack Obama has work to do in Colorado to woo Hispanics, the voting bloc that holds the key to victory in this battleground state and, potentially, nationwide.

Strong support from Latinos helped Democrats win the governorship and a Senate seat here in 2010, but polls show the president's support within the community has slipped dramatically, hurting his chances of winning a state deemed crucial to his re-election bid.

Colorado's nine state electoral votes are figured in to most scenarios in an Obama victory plan. He won the state in 2008, swinging it into the Democratic column after it supported Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.

But a lot has changed since the last race.

Hispanics, which both parties say could decide the election, are disappointed about the poor economy and Obama's lack of progress on immigration reform.

"Clearly the president has a lot of ground to make up," said Colorado Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia, a Democrat and a Latino, in an interview in his office at the state capitol.

"The kind of enthusiasm that was there four years ago is not as readily apparent. But I think it will grow."

Obama has traveled to Colorado twice in the last few months, holding events aimed at the broad collection of voters he needs to win: Hispanics, women and young people.

His approval ratings in the state are down at 45 percent, compared to 50 percent disapproval, according to a recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey.

Population changes offer a bright spot.

Minorities - especially Hispanics - are increasing, while white voters who make up part of the Republican base are decreasing.

"These shifts should put Obama in a stronger position in the state in 2012, as his growing coalition expands and the GOP declining coalition contracts," the Center for American Progress wrote in a demographic study called "The path to 270," a title that notes the number of state electoral votes needed to win a presidential election.

"But there are challenges," the report continued. "Clearly, if Hispanic support for Obama falls any lower in 2012 than it did in the 2008 election, then that would be a great boon for the GOP. But there is certainly room for Obama to increase his support among these voters, which would strengthen his overall position."

Volunteers are fanning out across the state to press Obama's case, trying to keep his support above the roughly 60 percent margin he achieved in 2008.

"It's pretty uphill for the Democrats," said Joe Perez, 67, a volunteer for the Obama campaign, who goes door to door in an especially conservative county in the state.

"We've got our finger in the dike, and we're holding the tide for the rest of the state."

REPUBLICANS BEHIND, TOO

The tide is holding, so far. The PPP poll showed Obama beating Republican frontrunner Newt Gingrich, 50-42, in the state. He held a much slimmer margin over the other nominal frontrunner Mitt Romney, beating him by a close 47-45.

Republicans smell weakness and are trying to exploit it, especially when it comes to the economy.

"Ultimately people vote their pocketbook," said Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican. "That's the direction Republicans will be focusing (on.)"

Madeline Rohan, chair of the Colorado Hispanic Republicans, said her party was late in reaching out to Latinos, too.

"Even though they tend to be more conservative, they don't necessarily identify with the Republican Party," said Rohan. "That tells me that the Republican message is not getting across, and ... we're trying to close the gap."

Bringing down Obama's Latino support by even a few percentage points could affect who wins the state.

Rohan said her group was working to train voters about the caucus process and emphasize Obama's economic performance and record on immigration.

The Obama campaign is highlighting immigration, too, by pointing out charged rhetoric by the Republican presidential candidates on the topic.

"All these Republican candidates tripping over (one) another to try and win the votes of the Tea Party and social conservatives are making it a lot harder to carry, for them, states like Colorado," said Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod. Conservatives want to restrict immigration.

He noted that Hispanics and women would play a "disproportionate role" in the election and "probably are not impressed by some of the positions that these Republican candidates are taking."

Not all the candidates have been harsh in their rhetoric, however.

Newt Gingrich, the current front-runner, declared in November his support for comprehensive immigration reform that would include a guest-worker program. He is now polling at 37 percent in Colorado compared to 18 percent for Mitt Romney, the other nominal front-runner, according to Public Policy Polling.

Colorado is considered a bellwether state for the country because of its equal mix of Republicans, Democrats, and unaffiliated voters.

"Certainly a Republican could easily win here. And the president could easily carry Colorado as well," Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper told Reuters in an interview.

"The key to winning Colorado is how well a candidate can appeal to the large number of independent voters, and there's just a bunch of them."

The PPP poll found Obama holding steady with that important group, which approved of him by a 49/42 margin.

(additional reporting by Lily Kuo; editing by Philip Barbara)

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