Obit Perot

In this Oct. 15, 1992, file photo, President George H.W. Bush, left, talks with independent candidate Ross Perot as Democratic candidate Bill Clinton stands aside at the end of their second presidential debate in Richmond, Va.

Stretching back to 1972, when the modern presidential nominating process began to take shape, Colorado Republicans and Democrats have had a hand in deciding their party's standard-bearers a dozen times.

They'll be getting another chance starting in a few weeks, when mail ballots start to go out to voters, but this time they'll have some company — the 1.3 million Coloradans who are registered to vote but aren't affiliated with a party, who make up 40% of the state's electorate.

Beginning the week of Feb. 10, Colorado's 1,022,364 registered Democrats and 967,449 registered Republicans will receive presidential primary ballots in the mail. At the same time, most of the unaffiliated voters will get both major parties' primary ballots, but can only return one. (A small number of unaffiliated voters have registered in advance to receive one or the other primary ballots.)

Ballots are due back to county clerks by 7 p.m. March 3, which happens to be Super Tuesday this year, the same day 13 other states hold Democratic primaries and 12 states hold Republican primaries. (Along with several other states, Virginia has canceled its GOP primary this year, citing President Donald Trump's dominance of the party — much to the consternation of the other Republicans running against the incumbent.)

Colorado falls in about the middle of the pack of Super Tuesday states. It's smaller than California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, and larger than Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Oklahoma, Utah and Vermont.

That same day, Democrats in American Samoa hold caucuses, and the Democrats who live abroad vote in a primary. It all adds up to about 40% of the available delegates to the Democratic National Convention being selected on a single day, potentially boosting whichever candidates have emerged from the four early-state contests in February.

Iowa holds its caucus on Feb. 3, New Hampshire has its famous first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 11, Nevada Democrats caucus on Feb. 22, and South Carolina Democrats vote in a primary on Feb. 29. (Nevada and South Carolina Republicans have cancelled their caucus and primary, respectively.)

Polls remain fluid, indicating the Democratic race is very much up for grabs, with some showing former Vice President Joe Biden in the poll position nationally but struggling in the early states, and others showing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in a favored position going into the initial contests. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is in striking distance, and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been polling strongly in some early states.

Candidates who are counting on surprise finishes include Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has exhibited some strength in Iowa, and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who is hoping for a historic come-from-behind showing in New Hampshire. California billionaire Tom Steyer has also been inching up in some polls and is pouring his vast resources into early states, betting on a breakthrough performance.

Waiting in the Super Tuesday states for those who survive the early contests is former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. The billionaire got in the race late and is banking on an unsettled field as the race enters March contests, when his unprecedented spending could propel him to some surprise wins and maybe even the nomination.

It's unknown whether Colorado's preferences on primary night will play a pivotal role this year, or even if the state will see many of the presidential candidates before the votes are counted.

Over the last 50 years, including three presidential primaries and nine sets of caucuses, Colorado's results only rarely earned national headlines. More often, the state was an early stop along the way for campaigns that had their sights set on bigger prizes — the kind of game-changing buzz that comes from wins in the earliest states, or the delegate-rich yields available in other, later states.

The few times when Colorado was positioned to have a big impact on nominations that were still up in the air, the state's voters tended to throw curve balls that didn't ultimately sway the results.

In 1992, when Republican George H.W. Bush was seeking a second term, Colorado found itself voting early enough to matter, one of a handful of states holding a primary on March 3, along with Georgia and Maryland, in the days before South Carolina and Nevada had secured their positions as on the heels of Iowa and New Hampshire.

The Democratic field was unsettled that year, after heavyweight Mario Cuomo, the governor of New York, had passed on a run when Bush seemed invincible in the wake of the relatively quick war in Kuwait. The frontrunners heading into the nomination battle were Bill Clinton, a smooth-talking governor from the small state of Arkansas, the wonky Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas and California Gov. Jerry Brown, who was mounting his second campaign for president after making a late splash but failing to deny Jimmy Carter the nomination in 1976.

Iowa hadn't helped matters, awarding the vast majority of its delegates to its favorite son senator, Tom Harkin, who stuck in the race for a month or so before petering out. New Hampshire awarded its prize to Tsongas, a neighbor, though Clinton finished a strong enough second to start spinning himself as the "comeback kid," a portrayal that would be revived as he survived political scrapes throughout the decade.

As the nation's eyes turned toward Colorado to help decide which direction the nomination was headed, all three of the leading candidates poured it on, drawing the kind of national coverage and heavy campaign spending usually reserved for other states.

Tsonga flooded the airwaves with commercials, Brown held rallies at colleges and universities, and Clinton seemed to be everywhere, from coffee shops to union halls. His wife, Hillary, bolstered the Clinton charm, meeting with smaller groups of voters up and down the Front Range.

On the last day of February, a Leap Day, Clinton, Tsongas, Brown and Harkin were joined by the other major candidate, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey for a televised debate in Denver, sponsored by KUSA-TV and the Rocky Mountain News. The debate was held in the Denver Auditorium Theater, where national reporters noted the Democratic National Convention had taken place in 1908.

The candidates sparred over everything from nuclear power — Clinton hammered Tsongas for supporting it at one point — to the increasingly vitriolic attack ads the candidates were airing, to Clinton's reputation for shading the truth.

Brown appealed to Colorado's environmentalists by pointing to his record in California and pitched a simplified tax system. He inveigled against the "cancerous corruption of political action money and ... the domination of $1,000 donors in the political process," according to a Washington Post account of the "angry and emotional" 90-minute debate.

Heading into the primary — long before mail ballots — Tsongas appeared to hold a precarious lead in the fluid race, with 26% to Clinton's 24%, but Brown was nipping at their heels at 19%, according to the latest Denver Post poll.

In a stunning upset, Brown carried the state, with 29% of the vote, ahead of Clinton's 27% and Tsongas's total just short of 26%. Kerrey trailed with 12%, followed by Harkin's 2% and the same 2% for uncommitted.

That same night, Clinton clobbered the competition in Georgia, and Tsongas posted a convincing win in Maryland, leaving the primary race as murky as it had been heading into the March 3 primaries.

Clinton, of course, went on to secure the nomination and unseat Bush. With the help of Texas billionaire Ross Perot, whose antics kept the nation on the edge of its seat through much of the year, Clinton even managed to carry Colorado that November, the only time a Democrat would win the state between Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide and Barack Obama's 2008 win.

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