CENTENNIAL, Colo. — If President Barack Obama wins this swing-voting state, and a second term as president, voters like Paula Burky will probably be the reason.
"He understands women," said Burky, a Westminster resident who last month decided to vote for Obama.
Both the Democratic president and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, see women — specifically suburbanites from their 30s to their 50s — as critical to victory in Colorado as well as in other hard-fought places like Virginia and Nevada where polls also show close contests. That means this group of voters may also hold the key to winning the White House.
The state of the campaign in the sprawling Denver region — modest neighborhoods and upscale subdivisions near the city give way to retail complexes, industrial parks and front-range ranches at the outskirts — illustrates how the fight is playing out across the nation, and how both candidates are seeking to woo these female voters in different ways.
Obama has stirred passions among Colorado women by stoking fears about abortion rights, spending the past few weeks sharply criticizing Romney in ads for proposing to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood and opposing the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
Romney, in turn, has paid for mail and automated calls in Colorado decrying Obama's handling of the sluggish economy's effect on women.
Just over 100 days until the election, polls in Colorado show a close race, though it's unclear how the electorate's psyche will be impacted by last week's shooting massacre at a suburban Denver movie complex and a summer wildfire season that has scorched countless homes and businesses.
For now at least, Obama has had the edge over female voters nationally and he is focusing on a particularly promising subset: college-educated women. Fifty-five percent of college-educated women preferred Obama in a June Associated Press-GfK poll, while 40 percent preferred Romney.
Women with college degrees make up 27 percent of Colorado voters, according to exit polls from the 2008 election, higher than the national average of 23 percent. That puts Colorado in league with other prime Romney-Obama targets, Virginia and New Hampshire.
Burky is among those who have gravitated toward Obama. She and her husband were unemployed for eight months until recently, while their teenage daughter was recovering from cancer. Burky was swayed by Obama's action last spring — opposed by Romney — to make it easier for women to obtain birth control, a move she said has economic repercussions.
"If women are choosing abortion because they are in dire economic straits, I have a moral obligation to vote for the candidate who is going to help them," Burky said.
Jill Wildenburg, an Obama supporter who lives in Englewood, calls the president's focus "huge because if women's reproductive rights are marginalized, then women are marginalized."
To press his argument that he's on the side of women, Obama sponsored a national women's summit last month in Colorado — in Jefferson County — featuring senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett and "Desperate Housewives" actress Eva Longoria. The week before he dispatched first lady Michelle Obama to Arapahoe High School in Centennial.
Obama is partly borrowing from the playbook of Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet's winning U.S. Senate race in 2010. Bennet narrowly beat Ken Buck after painting him as extreme in pointed TV ads about the Republican's opposition to abortion rights and popular forms of birth control. He carried Arapahoe and Jefferson counties by a combined 10,000 votes, about a third of his narrow margin over Buck.
"That portrayal of Buck is what beat him," said Democratic pollster Paul Harstad, an adviser to Bennet who also does polling for Obama's campaign.
Some Romney backers argue that Obama is attempting to distract female voters from the economy by emphasizing abortion.
"It has nothing to do with abortion," said Vickie Dow of Centennial, an upscale Arapahoe County suburb. "I'm worried about the economy. I'm really afraid things have gone downhill terribly."
Unemployment in Colorado was 8.2 percent in June, the same as nationally. It has ticked up slightly statewide and proportionally in Arapahoe and Jefferson counties, Denver's south and west suburbs where more than 20 percent of the state's population lives, after a slow decline over the past year when it dipped below the national average.
Romney, meanwhile, is seeking to court women like Debbie Brown of Centennial. She agrees with Republican pollsters who say that women are more acutely aware of economic ups and downs. Often household budget managers, women are more sensitive to fluctuations in the economy and see them as destabilizing to their families.
"It actually becomes a heart issue for them because they care so much about their families," said Brown, whose husband recently began working again after being unemployed for nine months.
Four years ago, Obama carried Colorado, which offers nine Electoral College votes, by 9 percentage points. The outcome in November is expected to be much closer, with recent public polls showing a tight race.
Romney views Colorado, which Republicans carried in every presidential election from 1968 to 2004, as a valuable potential pick-up. Obama aides argue that his 2008 victory is proof the Southwest's Republican trend is changing as Latinos, who typically vote Democratic, increase in numbers.
The candidates and their allies have combined to spend roughly $25 million in television advertising in Colorado — split nearly evenly between the two.