ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Out here, in what was once the Republicans' most impregnable stronghold, President Clinton appears on the verge of a breakthrough Nov. 5 that could reconfigure the nation's political map.
"It's all up for grabs now," says Rick Ridder, a Democratic activist in Denver. "The outcome in the West used to be a foregone conclusion. But voters in Western states are increasingly receptive to the views of Democratic candidates who are independent of the perspective of old Eastern liberals."
For the past generation, the 11 sprawling states of the American West -- including the biggest electoral vote prize, California -- were the backbone of the Republicans' presidential-year strategies.
Every four years, Democrats would vow to compete here, but the West remained reliably Republican. Before 1992, its electoral votes helped put Republicans over the top in seven of 10 presidential elections. And in two elections won by Democrats, a Republican near-sweep of the 11 Western states almost managed to propel the Republican candidate into the White House.
The big break came four years ago, when Bill Clinton and Al Gore carried the West Coast tier of Washington, Oregon and California while also achieving the unthinkable: winning Montana, Colorado, Nevada and the bellwether state of New Mexico.
But those 1992 results were widely considered a fluke. Clinton had benefited from Ross Perot's strong showing in the West, where the independent candidate diverted votes from President George Bush, especially in Montana, Colorado and Nevada. (Bush had carried Nevada by 20 percentage points in 1988.) California was an unusual case, too: Cuts in military spending had thrown it into a deep recession, and Californians had soured on Bush.
Then, in 1994, huge gains in the West by Republicans in the midterm congressional and gubernatorial elections seemed to suggest that the established order of things had been restored.
But just two years later, Clinton's apparent strength in this region has blindsided Bob Dole and prompted speculation about a geographic realignment in American presidential politics.
"We hope that one of the legacies of this campaign will be that we laid the groundwork for the Democratic Party to be competitive in this region of the country," says Douglas Sosnik, the White House political director.
Walt Klein, a Colorado Republican activist, concedes that this dream is entirely possible.
"The days are over when a Republican presidential candidate can sit down before the campaign begins and say: 'We'll carry Montana. We'll carry Colorado. We'll carry it all,' " Klein says. "It doesn't work that way anymore. Perot changed that forever."
Perot may have unmoored many Westerners from their habit of voting Republican. But there are other, more fundamental reasons for the shift. They range from the tactics of the opposing campaigns to demographic changes sweeping the Western states.
"Part of it was we changed, part of it was the Republicans changed and part of it was the region itself changed," says Les Francis, a native Californian and former official in the Carter White House.
Those changes include:
Pitfalls suffered by the Dole campaign and the candidate's lackluster performance on the campaign trail.
In Arizona, a state Dole's campaign concedes he must carry to be competitive, he has never seemed to recover from the portrayal of him in Steve Forbes' TV ads during the Republican primary season as a failed Washington insider. Those ads conveyed an image of Dole as the wrong kind of Republican for the region, which embraces such anti-government, anti-tax Republicans as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
The conservatism of the Republican Party on social issues like abortion, homosexuality and school prayer is alien to many Republican-leaning Westerners.
"There's an independent streak among Western Republicans that rebels against the idea of the government coming into your bedroom, your religion and your philosophy," says Bob Nelson, a Republican who splits his time between California and Idaho.
The boom in retirement communities, especially in Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.
This influx is proving problematic for Dole because of Democratic ads that accuse the Republican nominee and his party of slashing away at Medicare. Arizona hasn't gone Democratic since 1948. But the Medicare issue has caused defections among the elderly in the state, where polls show Dole trailing by 8 percentage points.
An influx of technologically proficient professionals who have fled crowded cities for mountain Shangri-Las in Aspen, Colo., Santa Fe, N.M., and Bend, Ore.
Bill Frey, a population specialist at the University of Michigan, estimates that in 25 years, the population of the 10 Western states (excluding California) has doubled, to roughly 24 million people. Today, eight of the 10 leading job-producing states are in the West -- and the new jobs are not primarily the timber and mining jobs of yesteryear.