DENVER – When Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin made her first solo steps on the campaign trail, she stuck close to the sort of places an Alaska governor could feel at home.
Her first stop was a roller hockey rink in Carson City, Nev., a small state capital nestled next to the mountains. Next was a dusty indoor riding center in a Denver suburb, where Palin was introduced by local officials as a candidate in touch with “Western values and independence and self-reliance.”
In these first moves on the campaign trail without running mate John McCain, Palin frequently traded on her Western credentials to woo voters in a region the campaign believes will be particularly receptive to her Washington-outsider message and outdoorsy persona.
More than 600,000 Coloradans have fishing or hunting licenses. For some here, Palin’s love of moose hunting isn’t an exotic quirk. It’s a shared hobby.
In naming the first-term governor as his running mate, McCain, an Arizona senator, gave Republicans an all-Western ticket in a year when Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, and to a lesser degree Montana, are in play. It’s a double billing that has allowed the Republicans to try to draw a sharp contrast with the Democrats in the race.
Neither Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois nor Joe Biden of Delaware have obvious ties to the interior West, and Obama’s Hawaii has little in common. Neither Democrat has made many attempts to play to the images Western voters have historically responded to. Almost no hats, no boots, no hunting. Yet.
That may be because McCain himself hasn’t fully cultivated his cowboy image. More than 25 years in Congress and an upbringing on military bases hasn’t helped, said Tom Cronin, a political science professor at Colorado College.
“He is really a creature of being a Navy brat and a Washington, D.C., guy. He doesn’t strike most people as a Westerner,” Cronin said.
There is no doubt Palin is a creature of the big skies and open spaces. A fishing enthusiast married to a champion snowmobile racer, she hails from about as far outside the Beltway as a politician can get. She regularly expounds standard messages of lower taxes and government reform, themes that jibe easily with Westerner’s libertarian streak.
“I reminded people there that government is not always the answer, in fact, too often government is the problem,” Palin said Saturday of her work in Alaska. “So, we’ve got back to basics.”
Republicans have wasted little time casting Obama and Biden as city slickers, unfamiliar with public land and water issues.
“There’s a very big contrast between these two tickets. One is a couple of senators from the big cities in the East Coast and one that is much more in line with the West,” Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., told reporters this week, misplacing Obama’s Midwest home. “I kind of wonder whether the guy from Chicago and the guy from Delaware even know what a grazing permit is or how to get one or have even been in a BLM (Bureau of Land Management) office.”
Republicans and their allies have begun describing Obama-Biden as “antigun.” The National Rifle Association sent a flier to 4 million members this week saying Obama would be “the most antigun president in American history.”
The Obama campaign strongly rebuts such claims and argues McCain is the one out of touch with the pressing issues in the West.
They point to McCain’s gaffe in which he appeared to advocate renegotiating the Colorado River Compact, a position far out of step with Democrats and Republicans in the seven Western states that rely on the river for water. McCain has since said he does not want to renegotiate the compact.
Obama aides also note that McCain has advocated storing nuclear waste in Nevada, an unpopular position in the state.
“On Western issues, Barack Obama has positions that are light-years ahead of John McCain,” said Jim Messina, Obama campaign chief of staff. “This election isn’t about swagger. This election is about substance and who can bring about change.”
It may also be about the changing West.
An influx of transplants from places like California have driven political shifts to the left in many pockets, particularly in Colorado and Nevada. The housing crisis has rocked urban areas in both states, making the economy a top concern. Immigration continues to drive the political debate in many local races.
This could be where Palin’s affiliation with these key Western states ends. Alaska is 76 percent white. A spokeswoman says the governor has no known statements on comprehensive immigration reform. Alaska ranks 37th in the rate of foreclosures, according to the research firm RealtyTrac.
Nevada tops the list.
ON THE WEB