The road to the White House has taken a sharp turn this year to the Southwest, where changing demographics, fast growth and shifting political sensibilities could make the region decisive in November.
President Bush swooped into New Mexico and Arizona on Wednesday just days after Democratic nominee John Kerry’s campaign train roared through on his way to Nevada, where Bush follows Thursday.
Polls show all three states could go either way. Arizona has 10 electoral votes, New Mexico and Nevada five each. In a close election like the one in 2000, any one of them could make the difference, so the land of high desert and hot peppers is getting more attention in this presidential campaign than ever before.
The political landscape of the Southwestern states has shifted dramatically, in large part to an influx of new residents from costly and overcrowded California, from the harsh winters of the Midwest and from impoverished Mexican villages. Arizona’s population alone grew by 40 percent in the 1990s, and the pace hasn’t slackened. The newcomers have brought their political allegiances with them, political analysts say.
In 2000, former Vice President Al Gore won New Mexico by a mere 366 votes. Bush won Arizona handily, by 51-45 percent, but two years later Democrat Janet Napolitano was elected governor, which persuaded Democrats that Kerry has a shot at victory there too.
Bush won Nevada similarly in 2000, 50-46 percent, but then he decided to make that state’s Yucca Mountain the permanent repository of the nation’s deadly nuclear waste. Kerry opposes that, which could tip that state to the Democrat this time.
Colorado, too, is a swing state this year, even though Bush won it 51-42 percent last time, because of many of the same social changes that are affecting its neighbors.
‘‘I think the big surprise is we’ve got four states we’re competing in right now. We can win any one of them.’’ Kerry strategist Tad Devine said.
In Albuquerque, N.M., on Wednesday, Bush attacked Kerry on the economy, accused him of conflicting positions on the war in Iraq and said the Massachusetts senator had erred by suggesting a timeline for reducing troop strength there.
‘‘I know what I’m doing when it comes to winning this war,’’ the president told supporters. ‘‘I’m not going to be sending mixed signals.’’
Wednesday’s trip was Bush’s third visit to the state this year. Vice President Dick Cheney also has passed through, though his visit last month stirred controversy when his campaign required attendees to a rally to sign a loyalty pledge as the price of admission.
The numbers in New Mexico seem to tilt in Kerry’s favor: Fifty-two percent of voters are registered Democrats and only 32 percent are Republicans. Even so, that doesn’t spell a slam-dunk for Kerry.
‘‘If a Democrat is painted as too liberal or out of touch, a Republican can win,’’ said Brian Sanderoff, an independent New Mexico political analyst.
Carrie McCarthy, a marketing director in an art gallery on a trendy Santa Fe, N.M. street, agreed.
‘‘Santa Fe is a little pocket of surface liberalism,’’ said McCarthy, a Kerry supporter who moved to New Mexico from Chicago four years ago. ‘‘The city was a hippie hideaway for a long time. But with the influx of wealthy second-home people, it’s not as liberal as it used to be.’’
The president used a talk-show-style campaign event in Albuquerque to trumpet his Southwest roots and take a veiled dig at Kerry’s Massachusetts background.
‘‘We’re right on the other side of the New Mexico border; we’ve spent a lot of time in this state,’’ Bush said of himself and his wife, Laura. ‘‘We don’t have to have a tour guide to figure out how to get around. We don’t need somebody to explain to us how the people of New Mexico think.’’
Kerry was in nearby Nevada, campaigning before an audience of senior citizens in Henderson, Nev., where he called for allowing drugs to be imported from Canada.
Bush will visit Nevada on Thursday.
Bush’s campaign officials said they weren’t shadowing Kerry, but several Southwestern analysts said it was no coincidence that, in this region, the president’s campaign schedule mirrored Kerry’s.
‘‘These candidates need to get out in the states and get the free local media coverage,’’ said Pat Kenney, the chairman of Arizona State University’s political science department. ‘‘Bush seems to be trailing Kerry around so as not to let him get unanswered local media coverage.’’
Both campaigns are eyeing the Hispanic vote, which could be huge. New Mexico’s population is 42 percent Hispanic, and Arizona’s is 25 percent, though voter registration trails those percentages.
Polls show Kerry ahead with Hispanics nationally by a 2-to-1 margin. Bush received 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000 and his campaign has been working to attract more. Some of his TV ads run exclusively in Spanish, and Bush occasionally drops Spanish phrases on the stump.
‘‘The president made inroads, but I don’t think it was as significant as they thought it would be,’’ said Adrian Pantoja, an Arizona State University political scientist who specializes in Hispanic issues. ‘‘Will they continue to make further inroads? It remains to be seen. Are the Republican initiatives resonating with Hispanic voters? The answer is we don’t know.’’
Looking for another edge, Kerry’s campaign has begun cultivating the Southwest’s Native American population, which traditionally has voted in low numbers.
Native Americans have stayed away from the polls in part because of their distrust in the federal government, ignorance of the voting process and difficulty in registering to vote, election officials and tribal leaders said. In New Mexico, for example, voter registration forms have a section in which an applicant can draw a map to his or her home to help election officials locate it.
Kerry hopes to take advantage of voter-registration efforts aimed at Native Americans by groups such as Moving America Forward, an organization formed by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who’s also a Democrat.
‘‘The greatest difficulty is distrust of the government,’’ said Amber Carillo, a Native American coordinator for the group.
Larry Perez, a Taos Pueblo Indian who recently moved back to New Mexico from Florida, filled out a registration form and vowed to hold his nose and vote in November.
‘‘I don’t want Bush back there, but I don’t like Kerry. I wish there were someone else running because I don’t think he (Kerry) can win,’’ Perez said.