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On the road to Vegas: Mountain West a battleground for '08 vote

  • Story Highlights
  • CNN, Nevada Democratic Party holding presidential debate Thursday
  • Democrats have made major gains throughout the Rocky Mountain states
  • East Coast residents have moved to the West; there's a growing Latino population
  • Utah is considered the most Republican state in the country
  • Next Article in Politics »
From Candy Crowley and Paul Steinhauser
CNN
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GRAND COUNTY, Utah (CNN) -- We're on the road to Las Vegas, Nevada. That's where CNN and the Nevada Democratic Party will hold a presidential debate Thursday.

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CNN's Election Express is rolling through the Rockies en route to Las Vegas, Nevada, for Thursday's debate.

We're riding the CNN Election Express, stopping along the way as we pass through the Rocky Mountains.

We started this trip Saturday in Denver, alongside the state capitol. The Democrats are holding their presidential convention in the Mile High City next summer.

Setting aside California, it's been 80 years since the Democrats held a convention west of Chicago, Illinois, and they are coming here for good reason: Colorado has a Democratic governor and a Democratic-controlled state Legislature for the first time in 40 years.

"I think Colorado is absolutely a state that the Democratic Party could win," said Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter. "Bill Clinton won it in 1992. No Democrat has won it since, but we are in a different place than we have been in recent elections."

And it's not just Colorado. Democrats made major gains throughout the Rocky Mountain states. They've picked up four House seats, two Senate seats and three governorships in the past two elections.

"I would say there's a four state area, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico, that truly are going to be up for grabs in the presidential election and some others as well could be surprises," said Arizona's Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano. "So when you combine those electoral votes if you're looking at the map and how to get to that magic number to be elected as president, there's a big clump of votes out there to get," she added.

The Mountain West's population is growing and changing. Many residents now come from the East and West coasts and there's a growing Latino population.

CNN Democratic Debate
Don't miss the Democrats go at it again in Las Vegas with CNN's Wolf Blitzer.
Nov. 15, 9 p.m. ET

But it's not just California transplants and East Coast retirees who are changing the nature of politics here. It is concern within the natural constituency of the Republican Party that there is a threat to the things that make this region special. Increased oil and gas drilling has sportsmen and ranchers worried about quality of life issues.

"I think what you are seeing is some of the traditional Republican leaning folks finding common ground with environmentalists who might otherwise lean in a different way," said Colorado State University's John Straayer.

But one can overstate the case. Western Democratic governors are moderate to conservative. And that's why the head of Colorado's Republican Party can't wait for the Democrats to hold their convention in Denver next summer.

"They are going to adopt a liberal platform that I think will be out of the mainstream of most Coloradans. But most importantly I predict they will be nominating Hillary Clinton in that hall in downtown Denver," said Dick Wadhams, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.

The CNN Election Express started Saturday morning in Denver, Colorado, with CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider giving a live report from alongside the state capitol. But just as he finished up his report, the bus was forced to make a quick exit. The city was setting up for Denver's Veterans Day parade, and the CNN Election Express needed to move. After a quick packing job, the bus was on its way.

Next stop, Denver's Mile High stadium, where Schneider gave live reports for both CNN Domestic and CNN's international network. From there it was up into the Rocky Mountains.

The CNN Election Express next parked 2 miles high, in the snow, up at the Vail Pass. After a few more live shots, it was westward bound again, on the road to Las Vegas. Video Watch a preview of Thursday's debate in Vegas »

We dropped 6,000 feet in altitude as we headed west out of the Rockies and into the mesa country of western Colorado. We parked the CNN Election Express for the night in Grand Junction, Colorado. That's where Schneider continued his live reports Sunday morning.

Then it was on to Utah. We joined Wolf Blitzer's Late Edition from the middle of the desert in southeastern Utah. The producers back in the control room in Washington asked if we could provide them with a location. The best we could give them was Grand County, because there were no towns around for miles.

The drive through southern Utah is a sight to see. There were beautiful vistas of the desert landscape with rarely any signs of civilization. We passed a road sign that said no services for the next 100 miles.

Unlike much of the Rocky Mountain states, Utah has not seen many Democratic gains. It's considered the most Republican state in the country. The state's governor, both senators and two of the three house members are Republicans. President Bush captured 72 percent of the vote in the Beehive State in 2004. The Democrats haven't carried the state in a presidential election since 1964.

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It's a different story in Nevada, which has voted for the winner of every presidential election since 1912, with the exception of Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Nevada is another state the Democrats would dearly like to win next November. The state has a growing Latino population and a strong union workforce. Those are two reasons why national Democrats moved Nevada's caucus up earlier in the presidential primary process. And that's why the CNN Election Express is headed to Las Vegas for Thursday's debate. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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