DENVER — Note to Republican presidential contenders: Colorado's political terrain is as rocky as its mountains.
Once solidly Republican, the state turned just as solidly Democratic in the 2000s as the population swelled with people moving into the state. Colorado's traditional bases of conservatism — evangelical Christians and Western individualists — became less influential.
Democrats rolled up big victories statewide and, in 2008, Barack Obama became the first Democrat in two decades to carry Colorado's nine electoral votes.
Today, however, unemployment is near 8 percent, and Coloradans are gloomier about the economy and their elected officials. Republican front-runner Mitt Romney and his rivals in Tuesday's party caucuses are counting on that mood to redeliver Colorado to the GOP this November.
"Whoever the Republican candidate is going to be, there's going to be support for that person in Colorado," Republican state Sen. Kent Lambert said, pointing to a state unemployment rate on par with the national average as a reason.
The path to the party's nomination cuts through Colorado on Tuesday, when Romney will try to continue his winning streak after back-to-back victories in Florida and Nevada. The former Massachusetts governor carried the state in 2008, with 60 percent of the vote. His campaign started working here months ago. He's bolstered by 289 Mormon congregations, although Latter Day Saints are not as strong a voter bloc as in neighboring Utah and Nevada, where Mormons accounted for roughly a quarter of all caucus-goers Saturday.
"Romney is very well thought of by a lot of Republicans," said Republican state Sen. Ted Harvey, from a conservative Denver suburb. Harvey hadn't decided whom to back Tuesday, but he predicted a Romney win.
Colorado is one of several states that hold GOP caucuses this month, contests in which Romney's rivals — former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul — hope to prevail or at least prove they are still relevant.
Campaigning in the state has been spotty.
Those who have courted voters here, Romney included, have focused on the state's traditional Republican bases of support, including Colorado Springs, where the conservative religious advocacy group Focus on the Family is based. It strongly influenced Colorado politics in the 1980s and 1990s, when the state was solidly Republican.
On a recent campaign stop Santorum drew cheers when he solemnly told a thousand people in the audience, "God called me to do this." He also has campaigned at Colorado Christian University in suburban Denver and at a tea party meeting in a conservative mountain town.
Paul spent part of last week campaigning in Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.
No matter who wins Tuesday's caucuses, Colorado is certain to be a battleground in the fall campaign, with its divided Legislature and congressional delegation, and a Latino population that surged more than 40 percent over the past decade. Colorado's 3 million active voters are split nearly evenly among Democrats, Republicans and independents.
The state Republican party is stepping up its Latino outreach efforts, and with good reason. Latinos are voting in increasing numbers. They accounted for most of Colorado's population growth in the last decade. Denver, the state's largest city, is more than 30 percent Latino.
On the other side, the Obama campaign is up and running, with a network of offices working to keep Colorado in the president's column.
In 2010, Republicans regained control of the state House and captured a narrow lead in the state's congressional delegation. One of Colorado's largest employers, the oil and gas industry, is frustrated by perceived hostility from the Obama administration, with an Interior Department led by a Colorado Democrat, former Sen. Ken Salazar.
All that is gives Republicans hope.