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Arizona: Turning Blue for Kerry? | The Nation

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Arizona: Turning Blue for Kerry?

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Until very recently, anyone making that sort of grandiose prediction would have been immediately diagnosed as a sunstroke victim. As Wilson notes, these hardscrabble desert climes incubated Barry Goldwater and, in turn, the modern conservative movement. At one point, Arizona turned so far to the right that local Republicans suggested taking Goldwater's name off the party headquarters because, in his waning years, he was too soft on gay and abortion rights. In the late 1980s Governor Evan Mecham (who was eventually impeached and removed from office for corruption) issued an order repealing MLK's birthday as a state holiday. Arizona Democrats lost eleven straight presidential elections from 1952 through 1992, never topping 40 percent of the statewide vote. And while Doug Wilson engineered a Clinton victory in '96, it was only to see Bush win in 2000.

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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.

But with torrential population growth through the 1980s and '90s, more than doubling the state's size, Arizona voters have become more urban, more moderate and mostly more Independent, the latter now making up 23 percent of the electorate. Republicans still outnumber Democrats in registration, but in 1996 Arizona voters approved the use of medical marijuana. Two years later Arizona became one of only four states to approve comprehensive "clean money" campaign finance reform. In 2002 a Democratic push fueled by the state's twenty-one Native American tribes and supported by a growing Latino vote elected Janet Napolitano to the Statehouse. Both the state attorney general's office and the mayoralty of Phoenix--the seat of Republican stronghold Maricopa County--have recently been taken by Democrats. Cooperation from moderate Republicans also allowed legislative approval this year of Governor Napolitano's reform budget. And now, by anybody's account, Arizona is up for grabs.

You could learn all you need to know about Arizona's shifting demographics and its resulting political alignment from glancing at the story lineup on one recent front page of the Arizona Republic. "End of the Trail" read an above-the-fold feature headline. The Old West theme park Rawhide, on the northern edge of Phoenix, was closing after thirty-three years, a victim of "the dusty fallout of suburban development and soaring land prices." Next to that article was one showing Bush leading Kerry by a slim three points, a statistical dead heat. "It's changed demographics that will let us win, a new coalition," says Wilson. "This year the Latino vote is going to be very important, but it's only one factor among four or five. Native Americans are another. An increase in turnout of our base is another, and our base is more left, more progressive. Independents are another factor, and they are increasingly difficult to classify. And then there are disaffected Republicans, especially moderate women."

In a nondescript, one-room office in gritty south-central Phoenix, Kerry staff organizer Arnulfo De La Cruz is just setting up his war room and covering the walls with annotated precinct maps of the three legislative districts that are his territory. There are 67,000 registered voters in his purview. They are predominantly Latino, but turnout in these working-class districts runs 15-20 percent below the state average of 70 percent.

Back in the run-up to the February primary, the Kerry campaign was already fervently working this ground. I accompanied former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, former California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and Phoenix Congressman Ed Pastor one morning as they canvassed door to door for Kerry in the immediate aftermath of his Iowa upset victory. Now De La Cruz is going to pull on those same sleeves with a decidedly pro-Latino pitch. "When I talk to my neighborhood leaders I stress how under a Bush Administration Latino unemployment is at more than 7 percent, how the gap between Latino and Anglo home ownership has widened, how one out of two Latinos won't graduate from high school and the Bush Administration has cut support programs, and how 38 percent of Latinos have no healthcare," he says. "That's the message that resonates here."

But that's enough to win, says Lopez of the Latino Vote Project. "Believe it or not, this is really the first time any serious attention is being paid to registering Latinos," she says. Of the some 700,000 eligible Latino voters in the state, only half are registered. "And half of them won't vote," Lopez predicts. That's why, she says, moving 10,000-15,000 voters here or there into balloting could make a huge difference. "Democratic turnout is usually about 10 percent less than Republican," she says, "so you have to peel off some of that Republican vote. And the Democrats have to get 65 percent of the Independent vote, just no way around that."

That evening, during a visit to one of the Kerry campaign phone banks in Phoenix, the feverish focus on that all-important Independent vote is immediately palpable. A retired immigration judge from Utah who has relocated here to work as a volunteer has got the script down perfect--as do the other half-dozen or so volunteers. "I'm calling from a presidential poll," he says to each person he calls off a voter list made up of only registered Independents. "If the election were today, who would you vote for: George W. Bush or John Kerry?" If the respondent answers "Bush," he thanks the person and hangs up. If the answer is "Kerry" or leaning toward Kerry, he says, "Great. So am I. I'm volunteering for the Kerry campaign and want to know if you could also help us out." Every time there's an affirmative answer, the volunteers ring a bell to spur one another on.

In Arizona, as elsewhere, the Kerry campaign charges up dead center, focusing on themes of "security"--national security and economic security--and de-emphasizing the more thorny issues of war and peace. But two hours south of the state capital in Tucson, decidedly more Democratic territory than Phoenix, fiery US Congressman Raul Grijalva, who originally supported Howard Dean, warns that "we cannot sanitize the message too much at the risk of losing our core people. Persuading the Independents and so on, well, that's the job of Kerry's general campaign. Our job down here is to turn out the base--a very progressive base."

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