ALBUQUERQUE — The top Democratic and Republican presidential contenders, Barack Obama and John McCain, brought their campaigns to the deserts of the American West on Monday, kicking off what is shaping up to be a fierce contest for the region in November.
The majestic vistas and suburban subdivisions of Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico were among the most contested territories of 2000 and 2004, although they were often overshadowed by the struggle for electoral votes in Florida and Ohio.
Four years ago, President Bush defeated Democrat John F. Kerry in the three states by a combined 127,011 votes -- just 8,412 votes more than his margin in Ohio. Had Kerry won the three Western battlegrounds, he would be president.
This year, with political winds blowing their direction across the region, Democrats see an opportunity to pull the states into their column. That could be especially important as Obama's prospects dim in onetime swing states in the East, such as West Virginia.
"There are a limited number of possibilities to change the electoral map for Democrats," said Mark Mellman, a longtime Democratic strategist. "These three states figure prominently."
The Democratic presidential nominee has won Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico only once in the last 40 years, however, and Obama, an Illinois senator from Chicago, may have to overcome an image as a big-city liberal.
In McCain, the Republicans have their first Westerner as presumptive nominee in a quarter-century. The Arizona senator, whose independent streak and strong military credentials have always played well in the region, is aggressively defending his turf.
On Monday, McCain traveled to Albuquerque, where he gave a spirited defense of his commitment to veterans -- despite opposing Senate legislation that would increase college aid for those who have served in the military. And he renewed his warning about a premature exit from Iraq, although he tried to distance himself from the Bush administration with criticisms of the handling of the war and mistreatment of veterans in military hospitals.
"The American people have grown sick and tired of the war in Iraq," McCain said as he stood under white awnings at the New Mexico Veterans Memorial, the Sandia Mountains rising in the distance. "I too have been made heartsick by the many mistakes made by civilian and military commanders -- and the terrible price we have paid for them."
McCain then urged patience. "As long as there is a reasonable prospect for succeeding in this war, then we must not choose to lose it," he said.
Two hours later, Obama gave his own Memorial Day speech in New Mexico's second-largest city, Las Cruces, where he criticized the administration as failing to maintain military staffing levels and to care for veterans after they return home.
"They are not being diagnosed quickly enough; they are not getting the services that they need quickly enough," he said.
He added that female veterans "are being most neglected in this area," calling for creation of facilities specifically to serve their needs. "Oftentimes our women service members are more prone to post-traumatic stress disorder, partly because there's a sad but real problem of sexual harassment and sexual abuse."
McCain and Obama are scheduled to make stops in Nevada and Colorado over the next two days. Bush will travel to the Southwest today to raise money for McCain and other Republicans in New Mexico and Arizona.
"This game is on," said Joe Monahan, an independent political analyst in New Mexico who said Monday's visits would probably be the first of many by the presidential candidates in the months to come.
(Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York -- chasing the Democratic nomination despite Obama's commanding lead among party delegates -- campaigned Monday in Puerto Rico, which holds its primary Sunday.)
Four years ago, Kerry and Bush each saw political opportunity in the demographics of the desert. New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada have a combined 19 electoral college votes, compared with 20 for Ohio and 21 for Pennsylvania.
Democrats ran aggressive campaigns to organize new voters in the growing metropolitan areas of the three Western states. And the GOP pursued Latino voters and mobilized the conservative rural voters who have made most of the inland West reliably Republican in recent decades.
By some estimates, Bush won as much as 44% of the Latino vote in New Mexico. "That cost John Kerry the state," said Brian Sanderoff, an independent pollster who has been measuring public opinion in the state for a quarter-century.
A similar strategy helped Bush take Nevada and Colorado, where he offset Kerry's margins in Las Vegas and Denver with big turnouts in GOP strongholds elsewhere.
This year, there are signs of Democratic momentum in the region as the party has taken statehouses and congressional seats.