IT didn't begin in Colorado for Barack Obama, but in Colorado he was crowned -- on an August night in 2008 when he accepted the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in front of 75,000 people in the gleaming new Mile High Stadium, where the Denver Broncos play football on a stage set reminiscent of a temple from ancient Athens.
But two years later, in the state that was supposed to be the anchor of a new western strategy for the Democrats, it's all going wrong -- just as it's going wrong almost everywhere in the country. "The 2008 convention had a magnifying effect," says Eric Sondermann, a political analyst in Denver. "We Coloradans drank the Obama Kool-Aid a little more intensely than the rest of the country. It was an artificial high, and that has made the drop a little more precipitous."
The President's party, beyond doubt, will lose Congressional seats and state offices here in next Tuesday's mid-term elections. Paradoxically, the one thing that can prevent a bad night turning into a calamity is the Republicans' own shock weapon, the Tea Party.
That is why no race here is more closely followed than Michael Bennet's fight to remain a senator. On the result may hinge the Republicans' chances of gaining the 10th extra seat that would hand them control of the Senate as well as of the House (now considered a virtual certainty). But for the distaste amongst centrists for the Tea Party, Bennet would be heading for defeat; instead his race with the Republican Ken Buck is now reckoned the closest in the country. The most recent poll put the candidates dead level, on 47pc.
Such are the stakes that, as of last week, the Bennet-Buck battle had attracted over $23m (€16.7m) of spending from outside groups, more than any other Senate race in the country.
Buck's positions have made him a Democratic poster boy in reverse, whose excesses have been seized on in states as far away as New Hampshire, warning of the fate awaiting the nation if Tea Party Republicans set the pace in Washington.
Even so, in this anti-incumbent year, when American voters are frustrated and anxious as never before, Buck catches their mood. Two factors above all make this a perfect year for Republicans. One, of course, is the dismal economy. With its 21st-century skyscrapers shimmering against a soaring Rocky Mountain backdrop, Denver still feels like a boom town. In fact, unemployment in the state has climbed to over 9pc, while the state government has had to cut spending by 20pc since the recession hit.
Oddly, however, Republican turmoil could keep the Democrats in the Governor's mansion as well. A single Republican candidate would probably have been able to defeat the Democrat John Hickenlooper, the current mayor of Denver. Instead two candidates are splitting the Republican vote: the official Republican Dan Maes; and the renegade right-winger Tom Tancredo, like Buck a darling of the Tea Party. But Hickenlooper, like Bennet, must overcome a second problem: Obama himself.
Part of the trouble, admits Rick Ridder, a top Democrat strategist in Denver, is that "Obama is not a good salesman. He hasn't got across what his goals are, even when he's achieved them". Choosing his words carefully, Ridder professes to be "baffled" by the president's "inability to articulate a permanent message for the administration". That, adds Ridder, explains why nearly 70pc of Americans (according to a recent poll) regard Obama's stimulus package as a waste of money -- even though a good part of it went to preventing individual states making even deeper budget cuts than they did.
Much the same is true of healthcare. This election year as always, Colorado voters have a selection of ballot initiatives to ponder. With only 75,000-odd signatures needed, and organisational costs of $300,000 (€217,933) or so, they are easily procured. Nine items feature on the 2010 menu. Three, reducing property and state taxes, would cause further havoc with the state budget. The healthcare proposal -- Amendment 63 -- is, however, another matter.
Essentially, it challenges a key part of reform -- the requirement that all Americans, whether they like it or not, buy coverage. Amendment 63, says Sondermann, "will be a litmus test for health reform. Most of the initiatives will go down, but there's a 50/50 chance the health one will pass." If so, fierce legal battles will follow. But should Republicans win control of Congress, Colorado will have emboldened them in their avowed aim of inflicting death on health reform by a thousand cuts.
The bigger question, though, is: do this year's losses herald a long Democratic decline? No say some, pointing to the growing Hispanic vote, traditionally Democratic, and the suburbanisation of the region that is steadily eroding old frontier conservatism.
Others though are not so sure. In retrospect 2008, when Obama carried Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, may have been a high water mark. At best they will be swing states -- and that giddy August night in the Mile High Stadium will become just another faded and dusty memory. (© Independent News Service)