Just over a week ago, third-placed Democratic presidential candidate, ex-Sen. John Edwards, broke with tradition and went to campaign in... Montana.
It was an odd move, but perhaps also a savvy one. After all, Edwards's advisers are surely aware that heading into 2008, the Mountain West will be a key battleground -- and one that Edwards evidently aims to claim as his own.
The Mountain West is traditionally Republican territory. Three of its core states -- Arizona, Montana and Colorado -- have gone Republican in almost every presidential election since 1964 (in 1996, Arizona went to President Clinton; in 1992, Montana and Colorado did the same).
But in recent years, the political preferences of the region have shifted. Last year, Arizona elected to evenly split its U.S. House delegation between the parties. Colorado elected Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Owens, and also chose Democrat Ed Perlmutter to succeed Republican Bob Beauprez in the 7th congressional district. In addition, Montana ejected Republican Sen. Conrad Burns in favor of Democrat Jon Tester.
Two years previously, Colorado elected Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar to replace retiring Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, swapped retiring GOP Rep. Scott McInnis for Salazar's Democratic brother John, and put Democratic majorities into the state legislature. And in Montana, voters elected Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a rising star in the Democratic Party -- and a figure to whom Edwards is keen to tie himself.
At his "Small Change for Big Change" fundraiser in Montana, Edwards was introduced by Schweitzer, one of a new breed of Western Democrats who, as of last November, was sitting pretty with a 70 percent approval rating according to SurveyUSA, thanks in large part to him breaking the Democratic Party's stereotypically liberal mold.
Campaigning in 2004, Schweitzer displayed unexpected sensitivity to concerns about high taxes and government regulation. He also aggressively touted his "A" NRA rating across Montana, which has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the US, running ads showing him hiking through the woods, dressed in hunting gear and carrying a rifle.
That's something that's hard to imagine Edwards, with his 77 percent rating for 2003 from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (or Clinton, or Obama, with their "F" NRA ratings, for that matter) doing, and it raises the question of whether any of these candidates can truly appeal to the demographic that Schweitzer attracts.
Certainly, their open opposition to the Bush tax cuts may raise eyebrows in Montana where, in 2004, 59 percent of voters supported the man who initiated them -- as may Edwards's mandate that everyone visit the doctor regularly to benefit under his health plan. (Montanans, specifically, seem to hate "Big Brother" -- witness the state legislature's 2005 passage of a resolution opposing parts of the Patriot Act.)
Perhaps all this explains why Schweitzer says the only candidate he would endorse is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who like him carries an "A" NRA rating, and who scored better than 37 others (including 20 Republicans) on the Cato Institute's 2006 Fiscal Policy Report Card on America's Governors. Mind you, Richardson is very unlikely to win the Democratic nomination -- and when the Democratic Convention is held in Denver next year, with the Rev. Al Sharpton and Sen. Ted Kennedy on parade, Westerners who have recently begun voting Democratic will see why (and very possibly be put off of the party).
That raises the question: could Republicans, who have suffered in recent elections in the Mountain West, pull off a win in 2008 in key blue-trending states in the region?
Recent polling out of Colorado suggests that that may depend on who the GOP nominates.
An August Rasmussen poll shows ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani beating Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, by 10 points in Colorado (the poll indicates that Sen. John McCain could also win in the state, though by a much reduced margin). An RBI Strategy & Research poll released earlier this month also shows Giuliani beating Clinton in Colorado, albeit by two points, and Obama, albeit by one point (both discrepancies being within the margin of error). By contrast, according to Rasmussen, Clinton would run about evenly with former Sen. Fred Thompson, and ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. According to RBI, she would beat Romney by a 48-42 percent margin; Obama would beat him by a 50-37 percent margin.
Despite his less than gun-friendly record and stated support for the Patriot Act, Giuliani may be polling well in Colorado due to his blend of fiscal conservatism and moderation on social issues. According to a 2006 Rasmussen survey, just 43 percent of voters there believe that abortion is morally wrong. By contrast, Romney's self-marketing as an across-the-board conservative (including on social issues), while carrying an anti-gun record, may be hurting him, just as Thompson's profile as the "consensus conservative" candidate may be doing him no favors in a place where conservative Republicans have been faring less well of late.
The basic message from the Colorado polling, however, is not in dispute: the Mountain West is in play. Candidates beyond Edwards would do well to pay attention to it.