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Democrat Has Competitive Chance to Win Open Senate Seat in Arizona

November 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Former U.S. Surgeon Gen. Richard Carmona hopes to achieve what no Arizona Democrat has done in more than 15 years: Win a Senate seat. Special correspondent Axel Gerdau reports on the race between Carmona and Republican challenger Rep. Jeff Flake to win the open seat, which is being vacated by retiring Sen. Jon Kyl.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to part two on the Senate landscape. It comes from special correspondent Axel Gerdau, who traveled to Arizona to report on a surprisingly tight race.

AXEL GERDAU: On the streets of Phoenix, it doesn’t look Arizona politics are about to change in any fundamental way. But Richard Carmona wants to do something no Arizona Democrat has done since 1995.

RICHARD CARMONA (D), Arizona senatorial candidate: How are you?

WOMAN: I am Nancy Porter.

RICHARD CARMONA: Hi, Nancy. How are you doing?

AXEL GERDAU: The former U.S. surgeon general is running to replace retiring Senator Jon Kyl, a Republican. Despite the state’s conservative reputation, Carmona actually could win the Senate seat.

RICHARD CARMONA: We have exceeded all expectations.

AXEL GERDAU: On the other end of town, Carmona’s opponent, Jeff Flake, is gearing up for the final days of a tight election most political analysts thought he would win easily. But after a tough Republican primary, the six-time congressman is running in a dead heat with his Democratic challenger.

REP. JEFF FLAKE, R-Ariz.: These open seats in Arizona come along with the frequency of Halley’s Comet.

We have only had 10 U.S. senators in a hundred years. So they tend to serve a long time. So when there’s an open seat, then it’s heavily contested.

AXEL GERDAU: Flake said his record of fighting against national debt and spending policies will convince Arizonans to cast their ballots for him.

JEFF FLAKE: I think the state is more concerned than ever with our fiscal situation. And so I think that that is reflected in how people vote.

It’s, first and foremost, what are we going to do with this debt and this deficit? And that’s been what I have worked mostly in the House over the past 12 years.

AXEL GERDAU: Meanwhile, Richard Carmona’s most obvious political asset is his life story.

Born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, Carmona lived homeless as a child and dropped out of high school. He joined the U.S. Army and became a decorated Vietnam veteran before attending medical school.

He was eventually appointed surgeon general by President George W. Bush. Carmona also served as sheriff’s deputy along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Democrats hope that bipartisan background can appeal to the independents, who make up a third of the state’s voters. The candidate talks about Republican efforts to recruit him while he served in as surgeon general.

RICHARD CARMONA: The Republican Party did ask me to become a Republican. I said, why? I was an independent my whole life, because I always thought that there were good sides. Both sides had good solutions to problems.

Unfortunately, we have gotten so partisan now that democracy is in a gridlock because nobody can agree on compromise, and compromise becomes a four-letter word.

AXEL GERDAU: Hispanics make up 15 percent of Arizona’s registered voters, and a recent survey showed they favor Carmona over Flake by a 6-1 ratio.

But in Arizona, like elsewhere in the country, Hispanics have not turned out to vote in the same numbers as other groups.

If Democrats can mobilize Latinos in large enough numbers, they could win the election. And that turns Daniel Valenzuela into one of Richard Carmona’s most important allies.

DANIEL VALENZUELA, PhoenixCity council member: It’s a campaign for social behavioral change.

AXEL GERDAU: The firefighter made an underdog bid for city council last year and won by doing what political operatives across the country had failed at for years. Valenzuela and his volunteers increased turnout among Hispanic voters in his district by 500 percent and 300 percent citywide.

He says his efforts will make Carmona the first Latino senator to represent Arizona and turn the state competitive on the presidential level in the future.

DANIEL VALENZUELA: We are knocking on thousands of doors every single day from now until the election to teach people about empowerment through the political process.

AXEL GERDAU: According to Valenzuela, voters support his efforts in part due to their opposition to Arizona’s new anti-immigration law and the reputation of Joe Arpaio. The self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America runs detention centers for illegal immigrants.

DANIEL VALENZUELA: Legislation such as SB-1070 and the behavior of the MaricopaCounty sheriff, it does cause frustration in neighborhoods like the one I am standing in.

What we have done through hard work is to help people organize and mobilize and use that frustration in a positive manner.

We are now voting, and when we vote, we vote people in who will best represent the people of Arizona.

AXEL GERDAU: But not all Hispanics feel the same way. Social conservatives like Tony Rivero support congressman Flake. The Republican city councilman from Peoria recently organized a lunch at a church to give Mr. Flake the opportunity to introduce himself to Latino voters.

TONY RIVERO, PeoriaCity council member: I am a Christian. I am fiscally responsible. I am pro-life. I am pro-freedom. I support marriage. I support smaller government. And I support a complete solution on immigration. And I believe that Congressman Flake agrees with where I stand.

AXEL GERDAU: In affluent Scottsdale, a 30-minute drive north of Phoenix, Leah Campos sees herself as a free-market conservative. The daughter of a Mexican father and a Spanish mother competed in a Republican congressional primary and now supports Mr. Flake.

LEAH CAMPOS, Arizona: Congressman Flake has always been steadfast in his defense of America’s free enterprise system and the idea that what makes America great and unique is that we have always championed economic liberty.

AXEL GERDAU: Campos also recorded a Spanish-language ad that alleges Mr. Carmona, whom she has never met, has character problems.

LEAH CAMPOS: My information on his personality quirks have been what I have been told, what I have read about in the newspapers and from a colleague of his who also did an ad recently.

AXEL GERDAU: That tough television ad was made by Carmona’s former boss, Cristina Beato, on Flake’s behalf. It started running the same day early voting began.

WOMAN: Carmona is not who he seems.

AXEL GERDAU: The Carmona campaign dismissed the allegations as unfounded and countered with an ad featuring a retired female police captain who was Carmona’s SWAT team commander when he served as sheriff’s deputy in PimaCounty.

WOMAN: Congressman Flake should be ashamed.

AXEL GERDAU: Because the race is so close, a single constituency or a single issue could make all the difference to win the election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tomorrow night, we will go to Iowa, where the issue of immigration is bubbling to the surface.