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The nation’s pollsters and pundits agree universally that Colorado is a battleground state for the 2012 presidential election, and they agree Obama is increasingly unpopular in this swing state. Yet, an Obama loss in Colorado will not automatically translate into Republican gains in the state.

Why this is so tells us a lot about the weakness of the Republican Party across the country, not just in Colorado. The Republicans can’t make up their mind if they are the party of constitutional liberty or merely the “other party,” the party of slower drift into socialism instead of the passionate embrace of socialism offered by the Obama Democrats.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper told an interviewer recently that Obama would have a tough time in Colorado if the election were held today. The reason, according to the Democratic governor, is the unemployment numbers that remain high and show no sign of changing much in the year ahead. But that will not translate into Republican gains in 2012 unless Colorado Democrats can be tied to Obama.

Colorado Democrats are quite happy that there are no statewide races in 2012. And while Democratic state legislators must run for re-election with Barack Obama at the top of their ticket, Republicans appear either unwilling or uninterested in connecting state Democrats to Obama’s policies.

Obama’s growing unpopularity nationally is magnified in Colorado because this state is proud of its low tax reputation. Colorado is the home of TABOR–the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, a 1992 state constitutional amendment that limits the growth of state revenues and requires that voters approve any tax increase. In 2012, voters in Colorado – including most unaffiliated voters and many rural Democrats – will not be enthusiastic about a presidential candidate whose principal platform and goal is raising taxes while the economy is still shedding jobs.

To make matter worse for Colorado Democrats, Obama made a federal tax increase the centerpiece of his plan for fixing our long-term national debt. Coloradans share the general public sense that the federal government has a spending problem, not a revenue problem, so Obama’s message does not play very well in Colorado outside such liberal enclaves as Boulder and Aspen.

Hickenlooper understands this and tries to keep some distance between himself and Obama on the tax issue. Still, Colorado Democrats rightly fear they will have a hard time avoiding blame for the sour economy with Obama at the head of the ticket. By January of 2012, they probably will be sending a new messages to the Obama campaign: Stay out of Colorado!

All of this should be good news for Colorado Republicans, but like the Republican leadership in Congress, they have their own problems. Finding and voicing a coherent message is one of them.

A good example of Republican propensity for self-immolation is the mishandling of the debate over Obamacare implementation in Colorado. What should be a winning issue for Republican legislators was turned into a divisive battle that left deep scars.

The state’s Republican attorney general is part of a 26-state lawsuit seeking to have Obamacare declared unconstitutional, yet Republican leaders in the state House of Representatives managed to engineer a divisive feud over the creation of a state Health Benefit Exchange, a key element of Obamacare. Conservatives and leaders in the state’s tea-party movement were outraged by Republican sponsorship of the bill creating the Obama-mandated exchange. The result is confusion in the grass roots and uncertainty over Republican commitment to repealing Obamacare.

Despite that fiasco, Republicans in Colorado have reason for optimism if they can avoid further fratricide and present a consistent and credible alternative to the Democrats’ love affair with big government. Most voters now understand that there is no way to finance the Democrats’ ever-expanding entitlement agenda without massive tax increases.

The problem for Colorado Republicans in 2012 will not be the increasingly unpopular Democratic agenda but the lack of a coherent alternative. A program to merely slow down the growth of government is not a winning message when voters are asking for more fundamental reforms. Going over a cliff more slowly is still suicidal. To save our republic and resuscitate the economy, we do not need to slow down the growth of government, we need to come to a full stop and then reverse course.

That is the message of the tea-party movement: a return to principle of constitutional liberty and a downsizing of government. The dilemma for the Republican establishment is that it has paid lip service to those goals but seldom takes them seriously. In Colorado each year, the state bureaucracy issues over 16,000 pages of new regulations aimed at private property and business enterprise – with barely a peep of protest from Republican “leaders.” In the last session, Republicans in the legislature did not make a serious effort to repeal the tax increases enacted by Democrats in 2009 and 2010 to balance the state budget.

Both political parties in Colorado find themselves in a box. Colorado Democratic leaders want to distance themselves from their own president, having nominated him in a Hollywood-style extravaganza in Denver only four years earlier. While they welcomed the millions in federal “Stimulus funds,” they are silent when it comes to any plan to replacing those funds and the 26 percent of the state budget that comes from federal dollars when Congress gets serious about balancing the federal budget.

Many Republican leaders in Colorado have an even bigger problem, one of their own creation: They think they need to distance themselves from their “base,” meaning the tea-party movement and rank-and-file conservatives who insist on adherence to principle. That agenda is embarrassing to aspiring pragmatists whose only idea of leadership is to demonstrate to the dominant liberal media that they can govern “responsibly.”

Thus, in Colorado as elsewhere, the good news for Republicans is that Obama is fading fast. The bad news is the Republican Party has no idea and no plan how to translate that opportunity into an electoral victory that can change the direction of government.

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