Wrote the Arizona Republic’s Jon Kamman in September 2003, ”After 91 years of statehood, Arizona no longer is the gawky kid of little consequence in choosing who might occupy the White House.”
Arizona’s 64 Democratic delegates, which are awarded proportionally, are a large haul. The only Feb. 3 primary state with more delegates is Missouri, where favorite son Rep. Richard Gephardt is expected to win.
Besides the number of delegate votes at stake, Arizona could be a predictor of how candidates will fair in the national election. Political experts say a heavy influx of people from all over the nation makes the state a good testing ground for the mood of the country as a whole.
Republicans in the state hold a slight advantage in the number of registered voters, but in the last decade the state has been closely split in statewide elections. In 2002 it elected a Democratic governor and attorney general. That competitiveness has drawn the early attention of the Democratic presidential candidates as well as the White House.
“Arizona is not a state that the president can take for granted,” Republican Sen. John Kyl told KAET-TV in October. “It is a Republican state, nevertheless, if he doesn’t campaign here, if we don’t do a good job, it is a state that could go the other way, and he knows that.”
Kyl said the state’s almost even split and ever-changing populace give it a political “volatility” that demands the attention of candidates.
“[Y]ou have to be out there pretty much all the time and that’s why I think you’ll see the president’s campaign really starting not long after the first of the year here in Arizona,” Kyl said.
As candidates have visited the state, they’ve focused on local issues such as immigration, the environment, and Native American concerns.
Arizona is 27 percent Hispanic, most of whom, analysts say, tend to back Democrats — a fact that has not been lost on the nine candidate’s seeking the party’s presidential nomination.
“I think it is wonderful that so many Democrats came in,” Mary Rose Wilcox, Maricopa County supervisor, told KAET in October 2003. “They will be fighting for votes… and they are keying in on Hispanic issues. They are not just talking about it. They are coming up with policies that will be incorporated into presidential politics.”
However, Republicans are also courting Hispanic voters. Senators John Kyl and John McCain, along with fellow Republicans and U.S. Representatives Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe, have proposed a guest worker program that would allow immigrants to obtain permission to work in the United States and to eventually apply for permanent residency.
Republicans are claiming some success with their efforts to reach out to Hispanics.
“One of the reasons Latinos in Arizona have become Democrats is because their parents and grandparents were Democrats,” political analyst Alberto Gutier told KAET in October 2003. “But we’re seeing a new era, and a new group of people… who are looking at the Republican side.”
Apparent Democratic frontrunner Gov. Howard Dean told the Arizona Republic that the Republican lawmakers’ proposal was “well-intentioned, but controversial.” He said the guest worker issue is “very difficult,” adding, “it sounds like a good idea, but how do you run it.”
As the Democratic candidates have flocked to the state, Dean’s campaign, which ran some of the earliest political ads in the history of the state, has gained a commanding lead in the polls.
A Northern Arizona State University Poll, conducted Nov. 14 to Dec. 9, showed Dean leading with 22 percent of the vote among likely Democratic voters. Dean was followed by Gen. Wesley Clark (12 percent), Sen. Joe Lieberman (9 percent), Sen. John Kerry (8 percent), and Rep. Richard Gephardt (7 percent).
But the same survey showed the contest far from over with 39 percent of likely Democratic voters still undecided.
Dean has also won the endorsement of former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who was President Clinton’s secretary of the interior.
Clark, who came in second to Dean in the polls, is hoping for a strong showing on Feb. 3 in the largely conservative states of Arizona, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, wrote The Washington Post’s political reporter Dan Balz in December, 2003. Balz added that other top-tier candidates are looking for the same kind of success.