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The West is tough terrain for Democrats

By Kevin Bohn and Jessica Yellin, CNN
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Fight is on to win the West
  • Obama was able to win over Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada in 2008
  • The West has seen a growing population and an independent streak
  • Poll: Democratic Party has a 45 percent approval rating in the area

Denver, Colorado (CNN) -- The western United States, with its independent streak and growing population, is the terrain both political parties are hoping to mine for electoral gains in the coming years.

With Denver hosting the 2008 Democratic Convention and a more concentrated effort in the region, the Obama campaign was able to capture Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada in last year's presidential election. Some Democrats hoped those results foretold a transformation, but a year later, political experts are saying not so fast.

The West gives President Obama his lowest approval ratings, and the Democratic Party has a 45 percent approval rating in the area -- the only region in the country in which it gets under 50 percent, according to an October 16-18 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll.

"It's not as though people are lining up at the Republican Party headquarters. It's just that the bloom is off," said William Chaloupka, a long-time observer of Western politics and a professor at Colorado State University.

Video: Senator facing challenges
Video: Romer comments on party issues

"Clearly the Republican opposition has made a dent, and there's no question about that, but at the same time I think there's just a dissatisfaction" with some of the nation's policies, Chaloupka said.

There may be no better example of the challenges facing the Democratic Party than in Colorado, which boasts both U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, Gov. Bill Ritter and which holds a 5-2 margin in the congressional delegation.

Bennet, a former school administrator and political novice, was chosen to fill the seat vacated when Ken Salazar was tapped to be Obama's interior secretary. He and Ritter face re-election next year, and both are expected to face tough contests.

In fact, Bennet, who visited every county in the state to help voters get acquainted with him, is facing a primary challenge from Andrew Romanoff, a former speaker of the state House.

Democrats in Colorado realize this may not be the best environment right now, but hope some results in Washington -- especially the future passage of a major health care reform bill -- will help improve their chances.

"The bloom is off a little bit, but it is expected," former Gov. Roy Romer told CNN, saying it is a natural evolution for politics and those in office as they deal with controversial issues.

While the economy is faring better in Colorado than nationwide, it is one of the issues that is not helping Democrats right now, they acknowledge.

"They are very concerned about a series of problems -- the war in Afghanistan, the economy, joblessness, the cost of health care, and these are issues that drive them. And they're worried enough that they hold people in office kind of responsible for the bad times," Romer said.

Democrats credit a lot of their success in the last few years to the ability to gain the support of independents in recent elections. In Colorado, more people are registered as unaffiliated than those who identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats. So the battle is on by both parties to attract them.

"I think everybody is concerned, but I think that out here it is independents that are the most concerned. Independents went very strongly for the president here, and they are necessary for anybody to win statewide in Colorado," Bennet said.

But many independents are turned off by the partisan bickering they are seeing in Washington.

Holly Biggers, an independent and a small business owner, voted for Obama last year.

"It is President Obama and Congress. It is Congress, how the laws are being implemented. It is how the laws are being passed or not being passed. It is the bickering that is getting in it and the trench warfare that is coming about. Instead of solving problems, some of the partisanship has really bugged me on both sides," Biggers said.

It's too early to rate how the president is faring on his key issues, said Biggers, who attended a recent house party for Bennet. She is not sure how she will vote in next year's midterm elections, as she looks for the candidates who will deal best with pocketbook issues.

"I am not sure what is happening in the nation is a Democrat or Republican issue. It is an economic issue. It is an American issue. At the end of the day, we are in a hard spot. It is affecting everyone so I think we need fiscal conservatives, and we need some bold people willing to make changes and they are from both sides."

While Bennet said he believes the president is still personally popular, he adds that other officeholders may be the ones who feel the wrath if voters are not happy with Democrats.

"If he's not successful it'll create a huge political challenge... I think that people want to give him the benefit of the doubt," he said. "I think they are less anxious to give people like me the benefit of the doubt and what we have to do is be able to prove that we're taking a pragmatic, independent -- you know -- relatively nonpartisan approach to the work that we're trying to deal with in Washington."

While some Democrats say it is likely some seats in the area will be lost in next year's midterms, others believe they still have a good shot at being competitive.

"Here in the West, voters -- you can't take them for granted. They're going to watch and listen and if we get the job done, if this economy turns around, I think the voters next fall are going to reward us here in Colorado like they... will all over the country," Udall said.