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Arizona, Florida Primaries: The Effects of Immigration, Economy

August 23, 2010 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Primary contests in four states are set for Tuesday: Arizona, Florida, Vermont and Alaska. Hot-button issues such as immigration will be a focal point, as will spending. Gwen Ifill speaks with Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida and Bruce Merrill from Arizona State University for a preview.

GWEN IFILL: And next candidates in four states entered the home stretch today with primary contests less than 24 hours away.

Tuesday’s primary voting promises to be a test of any number of this year’s hot-button themes. From policy issues like immigration to the free-spending ways of party outsiders. All come into play in tomorrow’s most consequential contest in Arizona and Florida. Democrats in the Sunshine State will choose between Congressman Kendrick Meek and a real estate investor Jeff Greene for the Senate nomination. Meek who has opened up a 10-point lead in the latest polls has won endorsements from both President Obama and former President Clinton.

REP. KENDRICK MEEK, Democratic Senate Candidate, Florida: We’re very, very encouraged by what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing from voters here in Florida. I’m looking forward to being victorious here on Tuesday.

GWEN IFILL: But Greene, a first-time candidate who has drawn attention for his wealth and his Hollywood connections, has promised an upset.

JEFF GREEN, Democratic Senate Candidate, Florida: I’m going to fight against the culture of corruption and bribery in Washington that’s called special interests. And I will go to Washington. I will create jobs. I will get results.

GWEN IFILL: Each has hammered the other on ethics issues.

MALE: Meet the real Jeff Greene. He ran for Congress as a California Republican. Moved to Florida two years ago. Became a billionaire on Wall Street setting middle class families would lose their homes. Helped fuel the economic meltdown.

MALE: Meek lobbied for big tobacco against children’s health care, lobbied against seniors. No wonder an independent ethics organization rated Meek one of the most crooked candidates.

GWEN IFILL: The Democratic nominee would face not one but two challengers in the fall — Governor Charlie Crist who is running as an independent and former House speaker Marco Rubio, a tea party favorite who is the likely Republican nominee.

In the race for governor, two Republicans are competing for their party nomination. Attorney General Bill McCollum and businessman Rick Scott. Together they have spent more than $50 million on tough television ads taking direct aim at each other.

BILL MCCOLLUM, Republican Gubernatorial Candidate, Florida: While you pocketed $300 million by ripping off taxpayers, as attorney general, I recovered record millions from Medicaid fraud. You put profit over principle. And that’s wrong.

MALE: Did you get burned by Bill McCollum? He promised to spend tax dollars wisely. But then he spent $280,000 taxpayer dollars on chartered aircraft even for personal use.

GWEN IFILL: Recent polling has given McCollum the edge.

In Arizona four-term Senator John McCain who was his party’s presidential nominee only two years ago has spent $20 million fending off a challenge from former congressman J.D. Heyworth. McCain, who pushed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill in 2006, adopted a tougher approach this year, emphasizing border security over legalization.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, Arizona Republican Senator: We got the right plan? The plan is perfect. You bring troops, state, county and law enforcement together and complete the danged fence.

GWEN IFILL: But Heyworth who has spent only $3 million on the race focused on attacking McCain for changing positions on issues like immigration.

MCCAIN: Complete the danged fence.

MALE: McCain opposed the border fence.

GWEN IFILL: McCain has lately opened a wide polling margin over Heyworth. Alaska and Vermont also hold primaries tomorrow.

Joining us now to take a closer look at what’s at stake in Florida and Arizona are Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida, and Bruce Merrill, professor emeritus at Arizona State university and a longtime political pollster.

Let’s start in Florida and Arizona, but start talking about the Senate race starting in Florida. What is the big difference, Susan MacManus, that voters are expected to draw between the candidacies of Kendrick Meek and Jeff Greene?

SUSAN MACMANUS, University of South Florida: It looks like it’s boiling down to primary voters. And their assessment of which of these candidates is going to be best for Democratic candidates all the way up and down the ballot in November.

But I can tell you truthfully it’s been non-stop character assassination for months on end to the point of where some are wondering how this is going to affect turnout tomorrow.

GWEN IFILL: We’ve been talking about outsider status all year long and how the outsiders are the ones with the advantage. Why is it then that Jeff Greene doesn’t seem to have the outsiders’s edge against Kendrick Meek?

SUSAN MACMANUS: Part of the reason is because he’s been running ads non-stop. And people no longer see him as a new face or an outsider. He’s more like one in the same of the other politicians.

Right now Floridians say that the number one thing they want to see in their candidates is integrity and frankly they haven’t seen a lot of it in these ads because these candidates have bruised each other so badly.

GWEN IFILL: In Arizona, Bruce Merrill, why is it that John McCain was ever in trouble? He was the party’s nominee just two years ago.

BRUCE MERRILL, Arizona State University: Well, that’s true. But he has long had a problem in Arizona with the right-wing of the Republican Party. And basically what’s happened this time is he is running against a candidate that is really a very right-wing candidate that has forced the senator to move much more to the right — much more than he’s a little bit comfortable with.

GWEN IFILL: Did he rescue himself in lots of respects with all of that money that he spent? $20 million compared to J.D. Heyworth’s $3 million.

BRUCE MERRILL: Well, there’s no question about that. He’s ran an effective campaign. John McCain is a very tough campaigner. He’s one of the hardest-working campaigners I’ve ever known. And he has spent $20 million. But it’s much like Susan said. Here in Arizona the environment has become so negative with so many negative ads that we’re expecting one of the lowest turnouts in the primary that we have had.

That makes it possible for somebody like J.D. to do a little bit better because when you have low turnout in the primary, the ideologues both of the right wing and the left wing have much more influence on the election.

GWEN IFILL: It’s interesting that you’re both talking about low turnout.

Susan MacManus, I want to turn to the governor’s race in Florida. Are we expecting Bill McCollum and Rick Scott to also drive turnout down because theirs has been a fairly negative campaign?

SUSAN MACMANUS: I think so. And in fact we have the highest percentage of undeciders at this point. And it’s just really making it very difficult to figure if the polls are accurate or not.

In fact, in the last three days or four days we’ve had three or four polls and they’re all over the map on the governor’s race. I think it will boil down to the party regulars seeing in McCollum somebody that again will help candidates up and down the ballot, or it will be Rick Scott benefiting from last-minute anger and a rising unemployment rate in the state and his emphasis on jobs.

It’s just so uncertain. But it too like the Senate race has been kickboxing at the head among both of these candidates. And it’s going to make some people just stay at home.

GWEN IFILL: So is what we’re seeing in these up-and-down polls that it’s a more competitive race or are we just seeing that it is a less engaging race? Which is it?

SUSAN MACMANUS: Well, a lot of people are talking about it. The polls are all over the place. One poll today has Scott up by 7 to 9 and another one has McCollum up by, you know, 6 to 8. You just really don’t know. And it’s really confusing to people.

We started early voting two weeks ago. Most people are expecting that the turnout is going to be between 20 and 30. Thirty 30 would be high for a primary election. But frankly this whole election season has felt like a presidential election year with the intensity beginning in January with the entry of these two wealthy candidates into the Senate race and the governor’s race.

GWEN IFILL: Bruce Merrill, it’s interesting in Arizona Governor Jan Brewer of which we have heard a lot of lately since the immigration bill was made law in Arizona — she signed it. She doesn’t really have anybody facing her in her primary.

Was that always going to be the case?

BRUCE MERRILL: No, that was not always going to be the case. And to understand Arizona politics in this electoral cycle you really do have to understand this immigration reform bill in Arizona. We call it 1070 here.

It has literally dominated and changed the entire environment of the state of Arizona. Three months ago the governor had supported a tax increase that was very unpopular with the right wing.

If she had not signed 1070 she would have had no chance to become the Republican nominee. Since then because of the tremendous media coverage not only in Arizona but around the United States and the world, she has been propelled into a very strong position. All of her opponents have withdrawn. And she will enter the general election with a sizable 15 to 20 percent lead over Terry Goddard.

GWEN IFILL: Terry Goddard is the Democratic nominee who’s running against her.

BRUCE MERRILL: Yes. He’ll be the Democratic nominee. He is a very popular attorney general here in Arizona. But he will clearly be the underdog because the political environment is so supportive of 1070, particularly among the independents, that it’s going to be hard for him to really come up with an issue other than the economy which is a rational issue where 1070 is a gutty motional issue.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you both. Finally, we’ve heard a lot on the national scene this year about the impact of the so-called tea party. In every state it seems to be different. In Florida —

BRUCE MERRILL: But he will clearly be the underdog because the political environment is so supportive of 1070, particularly among the independents, that it’s going to be hard for him to really come up with an issue other than the economy, which is a rational issue, where 1070 is a gut emotional issue.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you both finally, we’ve heard a lot on the national scene this year about the impact of the so-called tea party. In every state, it seems to be different. In Florida — let’s start with you, Susan MacManus — do we — we know that Marco Rubio is someone who’s considered to be the tea party candidate, whatever that means. How strong is a factor is that?

SUSAN MACMANUS: The tea party is sort of mobilized anger, and it’s contributed to the enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats this election season. But the tea party in Florida is more of something that people identify with for different reasons, and not everyone shows up that identifies with the tea party.

But one of the things that’s really driving them is the national debt. We have, obviously, multi-generations in Florida. We have a lot of people, Boomers and seniors, that are very concerned about the economy and the future for their children and grandchildren. So the tea party grabbing onto the national debt issue has really helped bring fiscal conservatives into the forefront and forced candidates on both sides of the aisle to adjust to that message.

GWEN IFILL: Let me briefly ask Bruce Merrill about the same thing. Is the tea party a factor in Arizona?

BRUCE MERRILL: It really isn’t a big party factor because what’s happened here is that they have not taken a position either with J.D. Hayworth or with the senator. So basically, the tea partiers in Arizona are just the kind of the traditional, more Libertarian conservative, states’ rights Republicans. So they haven’t been very focused or very organized. So I don’t see the tea party movement as a big factor in this election.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we’ll be staying up late and watching for results from both Florida and Arizona. Bruce Merrill and Susan MacManus, thank you very much.