“You’ve got a 21 percent Hispanic population that leans Democratic, an environmental group that leans Democratic, but you don’t have super strong labor unions. In the business/labor relationship, business has the edge there,” Straayer said.

Like many western states, Straayer said, Colorado is in the odd position of depending on federal funding for massive public water and land programs, “and yet there’s a strain of resentment about the central control out of Washington.”

Straayer and Masket agreed that the Hispanic vote was a key factor in 2010—not just in Colorado, but other western states where Democrats prevailed against the GOP tide. Ruben Valdez, a lobbyist and former speaker of the Colorado House, noted that Hispanics make up 31 percent of Denver’s population, and an increasing share of the nearby suburban counties—and they have been participating in growing numbers.

Floyd Ciruli, a longtime Denver political commentator and pollster, pointed to another important voting bloc he sees as key to the election: independents. “Thirty percent of voters here are not attached to either party,” he said, which means they will be micro-targeted via social media and advertising by both major parties. (Though when discussing self-declared independents, it’s useful to remember that most of them have some attachment to one party or the other.)

Independent voters, Ciruli said, “get most of their cues from the media. They are ad-oriented, they make decisions late, they have less commitment, and they can change their minds.” They need to be constantly persuaded, and “typically, you do that by putting a headline in front of them that says the other person is extreme or terrible or corrupt.”

But whether the target is swing voters or turning out the base, the message war—at least for Obama’s camp—may be the same. Masket said that the national GOP’s “embrace of a more cultural and religious conservatism”—its positions on immigration and birth control, for example—may give Democrats an increased incentive to turn out. (Straayer speculated that state GOP lawmakers’ move to kill a civil-unions bill could have a similar effect.)

At the same time, Masket said, Democrats will be “trying to take advantage of independent voters who might normally consider voting Republican” by convincing them that the party has become “extreme.”

Romney and the Republicans, in turn, will no doubt have their own messages. For the journalists who try to make sense of the fight, it’ll be a busy year here in the swingiest state of them all.

Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at PoliticsDaily.com. She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.