DENVER -- The state's name come from a Spanish word for red, but analysts in the state will tell you that, in politics, Colorado is pure purple.
President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney had their first face-to-face encounter last week in one of the key battlegrounds of this election and a state that is central to Democratic ambitions of nurturing a stronghold in the mountain West.
Pre-debate polling depicted Mr. Obama with a consistent but narrow lead in the state where he accepted his 2008 nomination and went on to win by the comfortable margin of 54 percent to 45 percent.
But in Colorado -- as across the country -- things were different then. The state's jobless rate in November 2008 was 5.6 percent. In August, it was 8.2, percent, just above the national average.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., pointed to the lagging economic numbers last week as he addressed a Romney rally in the National Western Complex in Denver. He stood before a banner emblazoned, "Juntos Con Romney" -- together with Romney -- as he courted votes among the Hispanics, one of the state's key and rising voting blocs.
"Over the last four years, the American middle class has been buried,'' Mr. Rubio said. "Those aren't my words. Those happen to be the words of the distinguished vice president of the United States, Joe Biden."
"Don't boo," he added over the derisive shouts of the crowd. "He's the best thing we've got going, guys ... in a moment of clarity, he told us what we already knew."
Hispanics account for 21 percent of the state's population and, despite the applause that greeted Mr. Rubio, here as elsewhere they are a crucial political asset for Mr. Obama.
Mike Melanson, a political consultant and former executive director of the state Democratic Party, said Mr. Romney added to his challenge in the state's Hispanic community with the tough line on immigration he took on the way to winning the nomination.
Nationally, surveys show that Mr. Obama leads Mr. Romney by the daunting margin of 70 percent to 30 percent. But Mr. Melanson cautioned that there is no such thing as a monolithic Hispanic vote.
Edgar Antillon, a manager at a Denver security firm, proves his point. Mr. Antillon was among those cheering the Cuban-American senator at the Romney rally. He criticized Mr. Obama for failing to follow through on his 2008 pledge to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Mr. Antillon, whose parents emigrated from Mexico three decades ago, acknowledged that the president retained strong support in the Mexican-American community.
"For us growing up, it was ingrained in you that the Democrats were for the poor, the minorities; the Republicans for the rich, for the whites," he said. "It's hard to get beyond those stereotypes."
But he said the state of the economy was changing attitudes. "The No. 1 issue used to be immigration, but not so much this election,'' he said. "Now, the No. 1 issue for Hispanics is jobs."
Overall, the state is divided almost evenly among Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Emblematic of the strength of social conservatives here are the communities around Colorado Springs, where the influential national group Focus on the Family is headquartered.
This was one of the few states where Mr. Romney made a breakthrough in his short-lived 2008 campaign, when he won three times as many votes as his nearest competitor, the eventual nominee, Sen. John McCain. Earlier this year, however, the state's Republican voters handed him a surprising rebuff as Sen. Rick Santorum scored an upset there.
Jim Carpenter, a Democratic political consultant who was chief of staff for former Gov. Bill Ritter, noted that the Colorado population is younger and better educated than national averages, demographic factors that polls suggest correlate to disproportionate support for the president.
"Our voters are moderate, independent, and they tend to be very optimistic," he said. "In the West, you kind of have that can-do attitude," he said. "I believe that Colorado is a true purple state, in every sense of the word."
The state had once been a Republican stronghold, but Mr. Ritter won the governor's office in 2006, a prelude to the strong Democratic tide in the state led by Mr. Obama in 2008.
Here as across the country, that tide ebbed in 2010, though in contrast to many states Democrats held on in the top-of-the-ticket races. Despite GOP gains in the legislature and within the state's congressional delegation, John Hickenlooper, a transplant from the Philadelphia suburbs, won the governor's office over a divided conservative field. And Michael Bennet, who had been appointed to the Senate after his predecessor Ken Salazar resigned to join Mr. Obama's Cabinet, narrowly held on to the seat against a challenge from Ken Buck, a county prosecutor with strong support from Tea Party voters.
Mr. Buck, who emerged from a tough GOP primary battle with a more moderate Republican, proved too conservative for the state's independent inclination, Mr. Carpenter said.
Exit polls cited by the Almanac of American Politics showed Mr. Bennet's victory rested on strong support from women -- 56 percent to 40 percent -- and independent voters -- 52 percent to 41 percent. Those are two groups targeted again by the Obama campaign. The more moderate persona that Mr. Romney projected on the University of Denver stage demonstrated his effort to counter that appeal.
According to a Wesleyan University analysis of advertising data compiled by the firm Kantar Media/CMAG, the Denver area saw more presidential ads than any other television market in the country in the weeks between the national political convention and last week's debate.
From Sept 9. to Sept. 30, Mile High viewers were treated to a total of 7,770 ads -- a majority, 4,001, from the Obama campaign. Other Democratic groups accounted for 790 spots. The Romney campaign paid for 1,470 ads, and the Republican National Committee and other GOP groups sponsored more than 1,500 commercials there.
During the same period, Denver was joined in the national list of top advertising markets by Colorado Springs -- it was 11th -- where the two camps aired an almost equal number of ads.
The Democrats' decision to hold their 2008 convention in Denver signaled the ambitions to increase the party's competitiveness there and throughout the mountain West. Colorado's western neighbor, Utah, remains reliably Republican. Arizona leans Republican in this year's consensus presidential map while New Mexico appears safe for President Obama. Like Colorado, however, Nevada remains a toss-up, with polling in both states favoring the president by very narrow margins.
Las Vegas was No. 2 in the nation, just behind Denver, in the Wesleyan analysis, joined by Reno at No. 9.
Project New America, a Democratic leaning group, held a panel discussion in Denver on Wednesday focusing on a survey of undecided voters in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Arizona, four states where the group sees rising Democratic prospects this year and in elections to come. Its internet-based survey found currently undecided voters in those states including a heavy representation of women, independents and, contrary to some stereotypes of the undecided, well-educated voters.
Another factor shared by those states is their heavy proportions of Hispanics. The voting behavior of that bloc is a clear factor in favor of the incumbent in this election.
And, in coming years, a key question in national and state politics is whether their majority Democratic allegiance endures. Mr. Melanson, the Democratic consultant, said more than half of the nation's Hispanic population is under 18, and thus it's inevitable that their political strength will increase.
In the near-term, that would seem to be growing asset for Democratic candidates. But he suggested that his party would be challenged to continue that trend.
He offered the analogy of Catholic voters in general, who as late as the 1960s were considered reliably Democratic voters, but have evolved into a voting group whose behavior pretty much mirrors that of the nation a whole.
This year, early voting in Colorado begins Oct. 15. More than three-quarters of the state's votes are expected to have been cast before election day.
Mr. Carpenter, who managed Ken Salazar's Senate campaign, said that system places a premium on a strong political ground game as get-out-the-vote efforts stretch over weeks rather than being focused on just one day. In that area, he said, the Obama campaign, with many more field offices in the state, enjoys a distinct edge over Mr. Romney's.
Politics Editor James O'Toole: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1562. First Published October 7, 2012 4:00 AM