Colorado is a good venue for a presidential debate focusing on domestic issues. The first of three highly anticipated debates between President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, will take place Wednesday at the University of Denver.
The state is known for its independent voting streak, and much like the rest of the country, there are sharp political divides about the role of government in the economy. In Colorado, those differences grow from two distinct population centers.
Tourism-dependent Colorado Springs, home to military bases and evangelical churches, overwhelmingly votes Republican. High-tech and clean-energy jobs, and the outdoor lifestyle has lured young people to the Democratic Denver-Boulder metro area.
"There's no doubt we're better than where we were four years ago. The question is, are we where we should be?" says University of Colorado business school economist Rich Wobbekind.
He says some sectors have been bullish, others sluggish. The state's unemployment rate is slightly higher than the national average. But one important trend has surfaced lately.
"We're adding jobs in the construction sector, and we were losing them at a very rapid pace a year ago," Wobbekind says.
Skiing, tourism and farming are also starting to stabilize, though the drought could change that. Then there are the large federal research labs and private tech companies that employ thousands in the Golden and Boulder areas, which coasted through the recession, buoyed by increases in federal spending.
Aerospace software engineer Trace Baker says he's "very definitely" better off now than four years ago, when he was expecting to get laid off.
"But I do have to say, in the context of the current political debate, I'm in better shape because government is spending taxpayer money for the projects I'm working on," he says.
But like many parts of the country, you'll also hear concerns here that government is doing more to hurt — rather than help — the economic recovery. This is especially apparent in the suburbs, where registered independent voters tend to outnumber Democrats or Republicans.
Rhonda Rodman of suburban Jefferson County, near Denver, turned up at a "Women for Mitt" event recently. She says she considers herself an independent, and has voted for both Democrats and Republicans.
"I have a friend right now who is trying to convince me to ... go back to the other side," she says, "and honestly, I am willing to listen to any argument, if someone's got a good argument, a solid argument, I want to hear it."
But this fall Rodman, a small-business owner, plans to vote for Romney. She runs a holistic veterinarian business — a service she says is considered discretionary.
"I'm very much affected by the economy, and I am really concerned about our solvency down the road," Rodman says.
Both presidential campaigns are actively courting suburbanites and Hispanics, who now account for one of every five Coloradans. They turned out big in 2008 to support then-Sen. Barack Obama, who carried Colorado by nine points. The state Democratic chairman is indicative of who the party is trying to reach out to. Rick Palacio is gay, Hispanic and has a working-class background. At a recent debate, he said Romney's policies would be a setback.
"He would veto the Dream Act if it passed his desk. He's gone so far as to say that the people should self-deport," Palacio says.
But the economy — not immigration — is the main issue this election for Eleanor Carrillo. She's a retired teacher who attended a Hispanic Republican business forum in Jefferson County.
"Because gas prices, food prices, everything's going up, and we see no relief in sight," she says.
Still, for many in swing states like Colorado and Nevada, immigration and the economy are inextricably linked, though only the economy will likely play heavily in the first debate.