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Bright lights, big politics: Jeffco, a swing county in a swing state, is critical to presidential campaigns

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By AJ Vicens

In the wake of visits from Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and Republican V.P. hopeful Sarah Palin, Jefferson County is adjusting to its new role in the national political spotlight.

But the pundits who analyze political races for a living aren't surprised by the attention Jeffco is getting.

"If you look at the polls, and assign probabilities based on how people may vote and in terms of the Electoral College, it seems that whichever candidate wins Colorado will win the election," said Dr. John Ratliff, a political scientist and sociology professor at Arapahoe Community College. "Colorado will truly be a swing state."

Ratliff says the shifting political affiliations in Jefferson and Arapahoe counties — both with huge blocs of active voters — have put the state in play.

Jefferson County had 356,608 registered voters as of Sept. 19. Republicans have a slight lead in registrations with 125,541, over the second-biggest bloc, unaffiliated voters, who number 119,383. Democrats are the third-largest group, with 111,832 registered voters.

That breakdown is similar at the state level. There are 1,029,062 registered Republicans, 1,022,575 unaffiliated voters and 955,428 registered Democrats.

In Jefferson County, Republicans have lost 18,000 voters since the 2004 general election. Democrats have gained about 1,000 in the same time period, and there are about 3,000 fewer unaffiliated voters in Jeffco for this presidential election.

With the added attention comes added pressure to get things right. Jeffco Commissioner Kathy Hartman, County Clerk Pam Anderson and Gov. Bill Ritter are urging voters to vote early or by mail this year.

"We can do ourselves proud by doing as much as we can to vote early and vote by mail," Ritter said. "Those are the two tools we have to ensure that on Nov. 4 things go smoothly and we play the role we should play in the national election."

Josh Liss, Jeffco's deputy of elections, said there is extra pressure, but not necessarily because Jeffco is a swing county in a swing state.

"I think the added pressure comes from being a presidential election year, and having two very close presidential elections in 2004 and 2000," Liss said. "But not from being Jefferson County. We're elections professionals; we've got a job to do, and we'll do it to the best of our ability regardless of the year."

Ratliff said the recent appearances by Palin and Obama have little value in attracting new voters.

"These appearances are important, but that's more to rally the loyal and perhaps get some free media coverage," Ratliff said. "But there's going to be an emphasis on the ground game this time."

The “ground game” refers to local organizing efforts by the major campaigns. The Obama campaign has several offices in the county, and the McCain campaign has one.

Multiple calls left for the Obama campaign were not returned.

Tom Kise, McCain's regional communications director, said Jeffco is vital for success Nov. 4.

"Jefferson County is a swing county, and it's important for us to compete in Jefferson County all the way through Election Day," Kise said. "We've got an active volunteer organization in Jefferson County, along with an office in Jefferson County. We're going to be aggressive in going after voters in the county."

Kise doesn't agree with Ratliff on the value of Palin's appearance.

"We had people coming in to get tickets that were former Hillary Clinton supporters, Democrats and unaffiliated," Kise said. "I think her appeal is across the board among former Clinton supporters, unaffiliateds and Republicans alike. She brings a lot to the ticket."

He said that Palin and McCain will be back in Colorado before Election Day, but he couldn't say exactly where. The campaign announced that Palin will visit Centennial on Oct. 4.

Renee Nelson, chair of the Jeffco GOP, said she's "excited" about Jeffco's prominence in the race but said the county has been on the radar for the last two elections.

"With having Palin here over the last week, it's been a tremendous boost with our volunteers," Nelson said. "We're using that as a springboard to get more people on the ground."

Palin has energized Jeffco Republicans, Nelson added. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the county handily in February, but he dropped out of the race days later.

"They felt their voice wasn't heard," Nelson said of Jeffco Republicans and their lack of enthusiasm for McCain. "But there's been a real shift in the demographic of people who want to jump in and do what they can." That energy means to Nelson that Jeffco is still a solid red county, despite voter registration numbers.

"This is a strong Republican area," Nelson said. "We still have the numbers, but the candidates need to stress the principles and need to stand up for those. As long as we give them a reason to come out and vote, and this will still be a Republican county."

Dick Barkey, chair of the Jeffco Democratic Party, did not return calls for this story.

Ratliff said the role of unaffiliated voters will be crucial to whichever candidate eventually wins Jefferson County and the state. He said that Colorado’s nine electoral votes loom large.

“My sense is that Colorado has a tradition of a cleaner election process than either Ohio or Florida," Ratliff said. "And we have a more civil political culture here, I hope."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.