LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) _ It's the first event on the first day of a campaign swing through three Western states, and Barack Obama is covering all his bases.
He's got patriotism, a Memorial Day event for veterans. He's got cowboys, the location is the Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum. He's got Hispanic voters, Gov. Bill Richardson introduced him. He's even got a nod to the environment: The Organ Mountains loom behind him as birds sing and the warm New Mexico wind blows.
Obama is signaling, even before the Democratic primary formally wraps up, that he intends to fight this fall for Western states that narrowly went Republican four years ago.
New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado aren't definitely Democratic blue or Republican red. Instead, they're known as “purple states'' by political junkies.
Together, they account for only 19 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. But those votes could be vital in a close race, particularly if Obama's weakness among white, blue-collar voters carries over from the primary race and cuts his chance of winning some other states where Democrats usually do well.
“We're going to fight as hard as we can in these states. We want to send the message now that we're going to go after them and I expect to win them,'' the Illinois senator said Monday.
President Bush won New Mexico over John Kerry four years ago by the tiniest of margins _ 49.84 percent to 49.05. His margins weren't a whole lot bigger in Nevada (50.5 to 47.9) and Colorado (51.7 to 47).
The Obama campaign hopes that anger at Bush, combined with changing demographics as new voters move to the region, will nudge the states into the Democratic column.
Richardson, the nation's only Hispanic governor, called the three states “fertile ground'' for Obama, particularly if he courts Hispanic voters with Spanish-language ads, personal appearances and attention to their concerns, such as immigration reform.
Hispanic voters have been a weakness for Obama during the primaries. Many have sided with the more familiar Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and there are questions about whether some Hispanics are reluctant to back a black candidate.
But Richardson said Obama can overcome that.
“As soon as he meets them, he builds support with them,'' Richardson said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It's a personal connection. They see a young man similar to John F. Kennedy. They see a minority like them. They see somebody who was brought up bi-culturally.''
Richardson also said that the growing number of service-industry jobs and high-tech jobs in some parts of the West are bringing more Democratic-leaning voters to the region.
Still, he acknowledges these purple states won't be easy for Obama, whose caucus performance this year in the three states was mixed.
Obama lost narrowly to Clinton in the Jan. 19 Nevada caucus, lost the popular vote to Clinton in the Super Tuesday New Mexico Democratic caucus, but won handily in Colorado's Democratic caucus, also on Feb. 5.
If he wraps up the nomination, Obama will face McCain, a senator from nearby Arizona, a military hero and a familiar face on the national stage for years. Many swing voters may feel more comfortable with McCain than a Hawaii-born, Harvard-educated, big-city law professor.
McCain said Monday that Obama “has no experience, no knowledge or background'' on Western issues.
“I believe as a Western senator I understand the issues, the challenges of the future for these … states, whether it be land, water, Native American issues, preservation, environmental issues,'' McCain said in an interview with the AP.
Obama said he needs to introduce himself to all Western voters, not just Hispanics. Issues like improving the economy, ending the Iraq war and providing universal health care will appeal to everyone, he said.
“I'm absolutely confident that we're going to do very well west out here because people out west are independent-minded and are going to look at whether or not over the last eight years the country is better off under Republican rule. I think they're going to conclude they're not and they want fundamental change, something that I'm offering and John McCain is not,'' he said.
Obama talked about veterans issues in a rural setting on the first day of his swing. Next up is a discussion of the housing crisis amid the sprawl of Las Vegas. Then comes a town hall meeting at a Colorado school for the arts.