Liveblog: Colorado election returns for president, Congress, state assembly

Throughout the evening, The Colorado Independent will be tracking election returns across the state for hotly contested races from the the presidency on down.

UPDATED: On heels of Barack Obama’s national landslide, Colorado turns a deep Blue, handing wins to Obama, Udall and Markey

Barack Obama, John McCain, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin haven’t visited Colorado a record 15 times since the national conventions because of the scenery — the state’s nine electoral votes are considered crucial to winning the presidency. Colorado has only voted for a Democrat once since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide — Bill Clinton in 1992, thanks to plenty of votes that were siphoned off by Ross Perot. But this year polls show voters could continue to march the state Blue, continuing a trend begun in 2004 and 2006 when Democrats took a Senate seat, the governorship and majorities in both houses of the state Legislature.

The contest between Democrat Mark Udall and Republican Bob Schaffer to replace retiring Republican Sen. Wayne Allard has also drawn intense national attention — and tens of millions of dollars, including massive spending by outside groups, making it the most expensive race in Colorado history — because the winner will help determine whether Democrats reach a 60-vote majority in the Senate or Republicans maintain enough votes to filibuster legislation.

While Democrat Jared Polis and Republicans Doug Lamborn and Mike Coffman faced bruising primaries to win their parties’ nominations, the toughest general election battle for the state’s congressional delegation has been fought between incumbent Republican Marilyn Musgrave and her Democratic challenger Betsy Markey. One of the most expensive — and vicious — congressional contests in the country, the Musgrave-Markey match-up could go down to the wire in the state’s sprawling 4th Congressional District.

We’ll post results as they become available, including the vote for key statehouse races and downticket contests that tickle our fancy. Please use the comments section to discuss the returns as they’re tallied.

7:00 p.m. – The polls in Colorado have closed. Counties should be totaling early and absentee ballots quickly. Because more than half of registered Colorado voters cast ballots before Election Day, these results should give an indication where the night’s count is headed.

7:07 p.m. – NBC News just called Arkansas (unsurprisingly) for John McCain. The state is odd because virtually all of its statewide elective offices are held by Democrats, but it tends to vote Republican in presidential elections. Of course, former Gov. Bill Clinton carried the state, but he was the exception.

With Arkansas, McCain’s electoral vote total stands at 75 — far short of Barack Obama’s 176, as the northeast and mid Atlantic fall to the Democrat. A crucial swing state, Pennsylvania, has been projected as an Obama state — narrowing severely McCain’s path to 270 electoral votes.

7:12 p.m. – Exit poll data has just been released for Colorado. Poll watchers caution over-interpretation based on the bare data, because it must be correlated to actual turnout once votes start coming in, but it gives an idea how different groups are approaching the ballot.

In line with recent polls — in fact, every public poll since early summer — Democratic Senate candidate Mark Udall is winning a majority of both men and women in Colorado, outpacing Republican Bob Schaffer. Udall wins men 48-46 and wins women by a wider 55-42.

That’s significant because the whispered secret of Democratic electoral performance since the Reagan era has been an inability to win a plurality of male voters. Virtually every Democratic victory on a large scale, from the presidency through the Senate and, often, individual members of Congress, has been won on a disproportionate margin among women voters — that’s the gender gap. Looks like Udall is beating that decades’ long curse.

7:18 p.m. – Colorado’s Mark Udall can give his cousin, Tom Udall of New Mexico, a congratulatory call. The southernmost Udall, also a Democrat, was just declared the winner in his bid for the Senate. The two Udalls — members of the powerful western clan that included Arizona powerhouse Mo Udall (Mark’s father) and 1960s Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall (Tom’s father) — also count Republican incumbent Sen. Gordon Smith as a cousin. Smith might not be welcoming his kin to Washington, however, as he faces a tough challenge from Democrat Jeff Merkley.

7:25 p.m. – John McCain took a very early lead in Dolores County, running ahead of Barack Obama 457-201 (that’s votes, not percentage points).

In the equally consequential mountain county of Gilpin, Obama leads McCain by roughly the same margin, with 999 votes to McCain’s 580.

7:28 p.m. – Udall and Obama are leading in Jefferson County, the suburban battleground that has seen visits from Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Politico pegs Jeffco as the 7th most important state in the country to determine tonight’s outcome. These are early returns, with less than 50 percent of the vote, but a win by the two Democrats would mark a sharp reversal from 2004, when George W. Bush carried the county at the same time voters split their ticket with the more conservative Democrat Ken Salazar, helping him win election to the Senate.

7:35 p.m. – At the same time as networks are declaring for Obama the crucial battleground state of Ohio — remember that it decided the 2004 election when it threw its votes to Bush — the Democrat appears to be leading in early Colorado returns.

With 10 percent of the vote in, here’s the Colorado tally:
Obama 183,762 55%
McCain 149,935 44%

The last Democrat to carry Colorado’s nine electoral votes was — well, no Democrat has accomplished that, because the last Democrat to win the state was Bill Clinton in 1992, when Colorado only had eight electoral votes. Prior to that election, Lyndon Johnson carried the state in his 1964 landslide, but Colorado — Spanish for “red colored” — has been colored Red every other year for 60 years.

7:42 p.m. – Secretary of State Mike Coffman has jumped out to an early lead in his bid to replace fellow Republican Tom Tancredo representing the 6th Congressional District. Political newcomer Hank Eng is trailing in his first race in Colorado (Eng was previously a member of the Appleton, Wis., city council before moving here three years ago). With partial returns from Jefferson and Elbert counties tallied, Coffman leads 40,314-30,099, or 57 percent to 43 percent.

7:47 p.m. – Boulder-based Internet entrepreneur Jared Polis, who survived a bruising three-way primary to win the Democratic nomination, appears to be cruising to election in the 2nd Congressional District. That’s the district Mark Udall has represented for a decade, before giving it up to make a run for the Senate this year — and a seat Polis has reportedly had his eye on since his teens. With 15 percent of precincts reporting, Polis easily outflanks Republican Scott Starin more than 2-to-1, running 36,554-16,117 in the liberal district.

7:56 p.m. – The Rocky Mountain News has called the election in Colorado for Barack Obama and Mark Udall.

Ever optimistic, state GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams — more than anyone, responsible for Republican performance this year, as he also helmed Schaffer’s Senate campaign — tells Denver’s KCNC-TV’s Kathy Walsh, “We’re still counting votes.”

8:01 p.m. – An hour after Colorado polls have closed, the shape of the state’s vote is taking shape.

With one third of the vote tallied in the sprawling 4th Congressional District, Democratic challenger Betsy Markey is maintaining a powerful lead over three-term incumbent Republican Marilyn Musgrave. The race has been among the toughest-fought in the state, with both candidates facing criminal complaints filed against their campaigns for advertising they believed was out of bounds. It’s also been the third-most expensive House race in the country this year and has seen millions in outside money pour onto the airwaves.

Still, observers thought before tonight the race would be close. It doesn’t appear to be so far, with 142 out of 443 precincts reporting:

Markey 93,989 61%
Musgrave 61,041 39%

8:12 p.m. – Let’s take a look at suburban Jefferson County, long a Republican stronghold but recently electing a majority of Democrats to the state legislature and seeing the GOP registration edge slim to 10,000 voters ahead of Democrats.

According to the Jeffco clerk’s election department, Barack Obama ran away with the early vote in the county, with 124,341 votes to John McCain’s 101,089 — that’s 54.01 percent to 43.91 percent, which is a tremendous lead to bank before Election Day. Those totals don’t include any votes cast on Tuesday, but very few Jeffco voters failed to take advantage of early voting. The county reports 76 percent of all active voters cast ballots either by mail or at early-voting centers, which doesn’t leave many votes still to be tallied.

8:19 p.m. – The Independent’s Wendy Norris summarizes two Hot House races in the contest for seats in Colorado’s General Assembly:

In a third match-up between John Kefalas and Bob McCluskey for the HD 52 seat it looks to be a decisive win for Democratic incumbent Kefalas, who has garnered 59% of the vote with 82% of precincts reporting. The Fort Collins seat has flipped back and forth between the two contenders since 2004.

With 72 percent of precincts reporting, incumbent Democratic Rep. Bernie Buescher is in a pitched battle with GOP challenger Laura Bradford. The razor-thin race is divided by a 10 vote margin. Buescher, who is widely considered a favorite to become speaker of the House, leads with just 50 percent of the vote against Bradford’s hair less than 50 percent of the vote.

8:24 p.m. – Back to the early vote in bellwether Jefferson County. Democrat Mark Udall racked up a similar margin to the one Barack Obama banked among the county’s absentee and early voters. Udall leads Schaffer 121,214 to 94,013 — that’s 52.10 percent to 40.41 percent. Astute readers will note that doesn’t come near approaching 100 percent — that’s because third-party candidates Bob Kinsey and Douglas “Dayhorse” Campbell each won about 2.5 percent of the vote, and roughly 2.5 percent of voters didn’t make a choice in the Senate race — the “undervote.”

By comparison, the Jefferson County undervote in the presidential race is virtually nonexistent. In other words, nearly everyone who cast a ballot made a selection for president. The third-party vote in the Jeffco early vote for president is also unusually low — Libertarian Bob Barr grabbed the most votes, but only enough to total roughly half of one percent.

8:33 p.m. – Still waiting for fresh returns in the Markey-Musgrave race, let’s take a look at the predictable results in the state’s other congressional districts. 1st District incumbent Democrat Diana DeGette appears to be sailing to re-election over Republican challenger George Lilly. In the 2nd CD, Polis leads Starin by a substantial margin and can start measuring the drapes. Incumbent 3rd District Rep. John Salazar, brother to Sen. Ken Salazar, also appears to be fending off challenger Wayne Wolf. Coffman is maintaining his lead as results trickle in from the 6th CD. First-termer Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat who won election to the swing 7th District in 2006, is also cruising to re-election past challenger John “Who?” Lerew.

The 5th District race, between first-term incumbent Doug Lamborn and Democratic challenger Hal Bidlack, shows Lamborn in the lead, but it’s early, only a few thousand votes have been counted.

8:34 p.m. – Referencing a tag line from one of his TV ads, Mark Udall has just said, “For once, I’m not kidding,” and claimed victory in the Senate election. The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News and CNN have called the race.

8:48 p.m. – Results in the close SD 26 race between Democrat Linda Newell and Republican incumbent Laurie Clapp results may not be known tonight because Arapahoe County has said its results might be held up until morning.

8:58 p.m. – As a measure of the difficulty with the Republican brand, the lone remaining Republican congressman from the northeast — Chris Shays — has gone down to defeat.

9:00 a.m. – All the networks call the election for Barack Obama the minute the polls close on the west coast. Cheering in Chicago’s Grant Park, where Obama supporters have been gathering by the hundreds of thousands, is deafening.

9:02 p.m. – Pat Waak, Colorado Democratic Party chair, joins former Gov. Roy Romer, Gov. Bill Ritter and Sen. Ken Salazar on stage at the Sheraton downtown, where Democrats are gathering to celebrate what looks like a sweep in Colorado — and, minutes ago, the declaration that Barack Obama has won the presidency.

“We got there on a path called hope,” Romer tells the appreciative crowd. Rep. Ed Perlmutter has joined the luminaries on stage. “It’s good to win, but with winning goes an obligation,” Romer says, urging watchers to “create a new America, one that will benefit our families and all of this world.”

9:07 p.m. – Sen. Salazar revs the crowd and urges members of the Colorado Obama campaign on stage at the Sheraton.

Right now, Obama stands at 284 electoral votes, nearly twice McCain’s 147. Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Indiana, Missouri and Colorado are still undecided according to KCNC’s projections, but other networks have already called Florida, Virginia and Colorado for Obama. This looks like it’s approaching an electoral vote margin unseen in a generation.

9:11 p.m. – Fox31 gets an interview with Mike Coffman at “a very somber Republican headquarters.” The secretary of state — and likely new member of Congress from the 6th District — says the vote is not a rejection of conservative Republican principals, but rather a rejection of the Bush administration. The Fox31 reporter is left momentarily speechless and throws it backk to Ron and Libby, who cut to the Democrats.

Gov. Ritter calls Barack Obama the “exclamation point on the American dream,” nearly losing his voice with boisterous shouts from the podium at the Sheraton. Ritter ticks off Obama policies, with a special mention for the “new energy economy,” a phrase Obama has said he lifted from Ritter.

9:15 p.m. – Republican Senate candidate Bob Schaffer is giving his concession speech at the Republican celebration in Greenwood Village.

Schaffer congratulates Udall for running a great campaign, says Udall will make a “great United States senator” and says “we all need to stand behind him.” A pitch for democracy — “we do it better than anyone else on the planet” — and an urge for his audience to “stand behind him.” The crowd greets Schaffer’s words with a dead silence.

Schaffer praises the party for rebuilding since 2006 — but the television stations cut away to John McCain’s concession speech in Phoenix.

“Sen. Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country, and I applaud him for it,” McCain says. Then he offers his sympathy for Obama on the loss of his grandmother on Monday.

McCain pledges to do “all in my power” to help him lead the country through difficult times. McCain says he wants to heal the rifts of the campaign and “offer our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together.” The crowd cheers.

“No association has ever meant more to me than that,” McCain says — perhaps a subtle dig at his own campaign’s efforts to question Obama’s associations with Bill Ayers, etc. “Though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours,” he says but the crowd rejects this, shouting “no!” and “John McCain! John McCain!”

McCain welcomes Sarah Palin to the stage and calls her “one of the best campaigners I’ve ever seen,” and the crowd goes wild.

“A lost election will never mean more to me than the privilege of your faith and friendship,” McCain says.

“This campaign will remain the great honor of my life.” The crowd boos and jeers when McCain congratulates Obama and “my good friend” Sen. Joe Biden. McCain moves on quickly, and wishes “godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and who will be my president.”

“We never hide from history,” McCain concludes. “We make history.”

McCain, his wife, Cindy, Palin, and her husband, Todd, wave to the crowd and leave the stage.

9:30 p.m. – The Colorado Independent’s Jason Kosena sends this dispatch from Fort Collins, where he had the chance to talk with Democrat John Kefalas, who appears to have won another term representing House District 52:

As Barack Obama was announced the winner of the presidency, the crowd of many hundred here in Fort Collins at the Democratic victory party began to cheer and clap. People were visibly moved to tears as many hugged and cried. The cheering and chants of “OBAMA! OBAMA!” have not subsided five minutes later.

“If the results hold,” Kefalas said after learning he had been projected the winner, “I think this is an affirmation of the good work that I have done at the legislature for the people of Fort Collins during the last two years. I’m very happy with the results.”

Because the race was a rematch of a close win in 2004, Kefalas said understood it could be close again. “I’m from New York and I have been taught that you never take anything for granted or assume something is true until the fat lady sings,” Kefalas told the Colorado Independent. “But, if the margin holds I think it will be a sign that everything we have been hearing from people while knocking on doors is true. People support the good work we have been doing in Denver.”

As far as his second term? “I want to work to establish the Colorado Railroad Commission that will look at how to bring a 21st century multi-modal transportation system to Colorado.” He also said that health-care reform and working to bring the EITC back to Colorado would be among his priorities.

9:43 p.m. – Democrat Betsy Markey can claim victory in her bid to unseat three-term Republican Marilyn Musgrave. With two-thirds of the vote in, Markey holds a substantial lead over the controversial Musgrave, who has drawn fire (and heavy opposition spending) for her strong opposition to gay marriage and firm stand on other socially conservative positions.

Markey 140,752 57%
Musgrave 105,480 43%

Markey, who worked for Sen. Ken Salazar running his northern Colorado office before throwing her hat in the ring, performed particularly well in Larimer County, home to Fort Collins. With 83 percent of precincts reporting:

Markey 86,575 61%
Musgrave 55,417 39%

But Markey found the winning margin — enough to offset Musgrave’s consistent lead in the district’s counties that cover Colorado’s eastern plains — in more heavily Republican Weld County, which includes Greeley. With 98 percent reporting:

Markey 43,158 53%
Musgrave 38,047 47%

Pundits had predicted Markey would need to hold Musgrave to a tie in Weld County, which is considered Musgrave’s largest base of suport, but few had ventured a prediction Markey could carry it.

9:45 p.m. – With more than 86 percent reporting in SD 26, Democrat Linda Newell is leading incumbent Republican Lauri Clapp with 51 percent of the vote

9:59 p.m. – Barack Obama has taken the stage in Grant Park in Chicago to claim victory.

“Is there anyone out there who doubts that America is a place where all things are possible?”

“Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals, a collection of red states and blue states, we are and always will be the United States of America.” it’s a reprise of the line that cemented his hold on the Democratic Party at the 2004 national convention.

Obama congratulates “this brave and self-less leader,” in a nod to his opponent, John McCain.

Introducing “the nation’s next first lady,” Obama draws cheers before telling his two daughters he loves them both “more than you can imagine,” and gets another cheer when he tells them “you have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House.” Obama enumerates family members and thanks them, then moves into campaign territory.

Obama calls campaign manager David Plouffe the “unsung hero” of the campaign, and thanks chief strategist David Axelrod. “But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to. It belongs to you. It belongs to you,” he says as the crowd grows hushed.

“Even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime,” Obama says, listing the two wars, “a planet in peril” and the economic crisis.

“We will get there,” he tells the crowd. “We as a people will get there,” prompting a sustained chant of “Yes we can” from the crowd.

Obama promises honesty about challenges and says he will “listen to you, especially if we disagree.”

“This victory alone is not the change we seek, it is only the chance to make that change,” he says, calling for a “new spirit of sacrifice.”

Obama invokes Lincoln — “those are values we all share” — and quotes Lincoln, saying “We are not enemies, we are friends.”

“I hear your voices,” he says to those who did not vote for him. “I need your help, and I will be your president too.”

Promising a “new dawn of American leadership” to listeners around the world. “To those who would tear the world down, we will defeat you.”

Obama lists “democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope” as the “true genius of America.”

Obama talks about Ann Nixon Cooper, 106 years old, born a generation after slavery, who cast her ballot his way in Atlanta. He recounts historic moments and historic change Cooper saw, from the Great Depression through World War II, the moon landing and the fall of the Berlin Wall. “After 106 years in America, through the best times and the darkest hours, she knows how America can change,” Obama said.

Obama concludes his 15-minute speech with the refrain “yes we can” and waves to the crowd while rather cheesy music swells. Joe Biden strides out to embrace the president-elect and they wave to the crowd, Biden all smiles but Obama looking more serious.

Here’s Obama’s acceptance speech, in two parts:

10:24 p.m. – A bright star of the Democratic majority in the state House looks to be going down to defeat by a razor-thin margin, according to unofficial Mesa Conty results. State Rep. Bernie Buescher, the HD 55 incumbent, is 123 votes behind Republican challenger Laura Bradford. The result could throw House Democrats into disarray because Buescher was widely rumored to be favored as the next speaker of the House, replacing the retiring Speaker Andrew Romanoff of Denver, who is stepping down due to term limits.

Laura Bradford (R) 14,682 48.6%
Bernie Buescher (D) 14559 48.2%

Total doesn’t add up to 100% because 958 votes, or 3.2 percent, were counted as “undervotes” and included in the total.

The Colorado Independent’s David O. Williams observes:

Buescher is a moderate known for reaching across the aisle and seemed poised to ride the blue wave sweeping the rest of the state to victory and become the next speaker of the House. But Mesa County is heavily conservative and largely pro-energy, and the incumbent Buescher, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was viewed by some as siding with the Ritter administration on tougher drilling regulations.

10:34 p.m. – Betsy Markey is ready to declare victory in the 4th District race, according to her spokesman, Ben Marter. She plans to make a speech at the Hilton in Fort Collins, where Larimer County Democrats are celebrating.

Markey, who is at the Hilton in Fort Collins, will make a victory speech, after waiting for Obama to make his in Chicago.

10:40 p.m. – Bob Schaffer sounded a note devoid of self pity in his concession speech, according to the Rocky Mountain news. “Good campaigns don’t end on election day, win or lose, if the ideas matter,” Schaffer told the gathered Republicans. “For all of us who are activists in the room, there are 730 days until the next election. Our job in the meantime is to find new leaders.”

It’s unclear whether Schaffer could be considering a run in 2010 — the subject of rampant speculation, as his Senate campaign appears to have finished the campaign with a substantial surplus — or is preparing to pass the torch to “new leaders.”

10:42 p.m. – After some trouble making it to the stage, Betsy Markey is claiming victory in Fort Collins. She starts by thanking Marilyn Musgrave and dampens down protests from the crowd, then says anyone who puts themselves out there in front of the public deserves thanks.

It takes some time to catalog her substantial family, including some who have been there “from day one” and others who flew in for the election.

Markey reserves special praise and gratitude for “my former boss,” Sen. Ken Salazar. He came to her defense when Musgrave attacks reached into her service on his staff.

Please catch up with the Markey upset in a separate story on the Colorado Independent.

10:54 p.m. – Catching up with a dispatch from Jason Kosena, on scene with the Larimer County Democrats in Fort Collins:

After Betsy Markey spoke to a room of 400-500 supporters tonight in Fort Collins, Democratic state Reps. John Kefalas and Randy Fischer planned to take the podium to make their victory speeches. Kefalas told the Colorado Independent he is wary of declaring victory over Republican Bob McCluskey without all the results posted. However, his lead is substantial enough he will make the speech, he said.

Fort Collins Democrat state Sen. Bob Bacon, who handily won his re-election bid against Republican Matt Fries, planned to speak after Kefalas and Fischer.

11:02 p.m. – Cara DeGette reports from Democratic party central at the Sheraton in downtown Denver:

You can imagine the ecstatic mood. State Senate President Peter Groff was onstage, going down the line of introductions of the lawmakers who joined him: Sen.-elect Joyce Foster, Sens. Lois Tochtrop (who did a little dance), Jennifer Veiga. Jim Isgar, Bob Hagedorn, Chris Romer and Ken Gordon.

Groff offered up his thanks to a crowd of thousands, who have taken Colorado from a “deep red to a purple, to light blue to, tonight, a deep blue…”

It was then, on the big screen, CNN announced its projected winner for President of the United States: Barack Obama. The cheering was thunderous, the music instantly recognizable: Signed, Sealed, Delivered.

Former Gov. Roy Romer took the podium. “Colorado, this is a new day,” he said. “A new day for us, for this nation, and this world.”

Sen. Ken Salazar followed, then Gov. Bill Ritter, who thanked Colorado for delivering its nine electoral votes to Obama. Ritter recalled nine months ago being asked by a reporter if Obama could really expect to win Colorado.

“In Colorado we believe in the American Dream,” Ritter said he told the reporter, “and Barack Obama is the exclamation point on the American Dream.”

Cheesy? Not to this energized crowd. Not by a mile.

11:25 p.m. – Bradford has taken a 400-vote lead over Buescher in the race for state House District 55 — an outcome that could determine who takes the job of speaker, running the House, a position Buescher was favored to win.

Laura Bradford (R) 15,988 50.64%
Bernie Buescher (D) 15,583 49.36%

11:32 p.m. – The state Senate District 26 race is down to the wire, depending on 52 polling boxes remaining to be counted, according to PolitickerCO. Democrat Linda Newell leads Republican Lauri Clapp by 139 votes. Newell predicted results within an hour but didn’t know which precincts were represented by the uncounted boxes.

11:45 p.m. – How are Colorado’s newspapers and Web sites naming the election?

The Denver Post headlines its site:
OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT IN HISTORIC VICTORY

with another heading over the main story about state results:
Colorado turns blue

The Rocky Mountain News headlines its site:
Obama: ‘Change has come to America’

and uses this utilitarian headline for its state story:
Democrats win across state

The Fort Collins Coloradoan headlines:
Fort Collins voters choose ‘change’

The Colorado Springs Gazette’s lead story is:
‘Yes, we can’: Obama vows to be president for all

The Aurora Sentinel goes with the no-nonsense:
Barack Obama wins

The Pueblo Chieftain seems to have given over its Web site to election returns, without a headline, and the Greeley Tribune puts an election night chat feature up top.

Want to guess how many variations on “turning blue” show up on the actual newspaper front pages Wednesday morning?

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Ernest Luning

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