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Arizona: Turning Blue for Kerry? | The Nation

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Arizona: Turning Blue for Kerry?

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There aren't just "swing states" in this election, but "swing constituencies," too. This is the first in a series that looks at examples of both that have implications for progressive politics.   --The Editors

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

Flagstaff, Arizona

Except for an occasional candidate's gaffe, it's usually difficult to find anything memorable about the tightly scripted, closely choreographed, staged-for-television presidential campaign trail events. But as John Kerry's train nears the local station in this picturesque mountain town on a late Sunday night in August ten days after the Democratic convention, just about everyone around me seems to agree that something remarkable is happening. Five hours ago, long before we heard the train's steam whistle signaling the candidate's arrival in the same car Harry Truman used in 1948, thousands of people had already filled the town plaza. (Police eventually estimate the crowd at a minimum of 10,000--a startling number for a city of only 61,000.)

When Kerry finally arrives, well past 10 pm, almost two hours late, dressed in signature khakis, open blue shirt and a black blazer, he apologizes to the crowd for the delay. He says he had to make an unscheduled stop in the tiny town of Winslow because an impromptu crowd of 1,000 or more had assembled at the station. "I saw this sign," he explains. "It said Give Us Ten Minutes and We'll Give You Eight Years. I took it. They deserve to have a stop!"

The crowd roars its approval. Then, until nearly midnight, it weathers the cold mountain night to hear out not only Kerry but a plethora of other Democratic elected officials, including Governor Janet Napolitano, who elicits another roar of approval when she vows, "We're gonna turn Arizona blue!"

The crowd is thick with Kerry for President T-shirts and banners. That may be a reflection in part of the fact that local Northern Arizona University is a magnet for Democrats. There's also a strong contingent of Navajos, who have come in from their nearby reservation. Even a smattering of union T-shirts are visible. "I drove five hours to come here tonight," says 42-year-old Luis Peralta, wearing a Miners for Kerry shirt. "His coming to Arizona is so important to us. I'm going to take the next month off to volunteer. We can put him over the line."

All the excitement derives from much more than Kerry's tortuously dry oratory--no better in person than on the screen. Rather, Arizonans of both parties, but especially Democrats, know that for the first time they can remember, their state has become a key player in a presidential election. Maybe the decisive player. Not a single presidential candidate campaigned in Flagstaff in 2000, but both the Kerry and Bush campaigns have been divebombing in and out of this state of 5.6 million for the past few months. Kerry's visit to this northern Arizona town is the first ever by a Democratic presidential nominee.

Indeed, for all the talk about Rust Belt battleground states like Ohio, the collective electoral clout of New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona could easily overshadow any larger heartland state. Nevada, a red state last time around, is now an even match, as is New Mexico, where Al Gore won by 366 votes in 2000. Democrats are also confident they can compete in Colorado, where Bush beat Gore by eight points.

But it's in Arizona, the second-fastest-growing state (after Nevada), brimming with Latinos and Independents--it now has ten electoral votes--where the bloodiest fight is likely to take place. Democrats, who lost the state by six points in 2000, have been pouring in resources--dwarfing the meager commitment made in 2000. Political spots saturate the airwaves--in both English and Spanish (Latinos are a fourth of the population). The AFL-CIO has deemed Arizona crucial enough to be one of the states to which it will send election monitors to guarantee minority voting rights. Left-of-center nonprofits and 527s--from the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson's Moving America Forward, to the labor- and church-supported New American Freedom Summer--have also set up shop. Volunteers man phone banks every night--and day.

"I had no idea what it meant until now to be a target state," says Debbie Lopez, a recent executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, with a laugh. From cramped quarters inside the Phoenix offices of ACORN, buried in whiteboards, stacked-up file folders and Excel spreadsheets, Lopez now runs the $3 million Latino Vote Project, which has registered 65,000 people since January. "What a difference money and attention bring," she says. "Four years ago the Democratic coordinated campaign budget in Arizona was $800,000. In 2002 it was $9 million. This year will be $10 million. Plus another $11 million or $12 million from 527s. All together, that's twenty times bigger than four years ago."

And Democrats have the highest expectations regarding a return on their investment. "This is not your grandfather's Old West," says Kerry campaign state director Doug Wilson. "What was once a knee-jerk Republican state is going through enormous changes. Goldwater has been replaced by McCain. Ideology has been replaced by Independents. And on election night you're going to see we're going to win this state and elsewhere in the West. Not a big victory. But enough of a wind from the West to sweep the nation."

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