Arizona Democrats agreed with their counterparts in four other states Tuesday that Sen. John Kerry is the man best suited to challenge President Bush for the White House this November.
The state offered a prize of 64 delegates who will be apportioned to the Democratic National Convention, where the nominee will be picked. Kerry will earn the lion’s share of those after scoring a runaway victory in the state over his nearest rival, retired Gen. Wesley Clark.
Kerry also swept Missouri, Delaware, North Dakota and New Mexico by comfortable margins Tuesday.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose early momentum in Arizona and elsewhere disappeared in a matter of weeks, placed third in Arizona, followed further back by Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Lieberman, who traveled frequently to Arizona and spent heavily on television advertising here, formally dropped out of the race after poor showings in all seven states that voted Tuesday.
Kerry said his Arizona victory proves he can appeal to a national electorate in a showdown with Bush.
“I am stunned by the results and truly honored and humbled by the confidence that so many voters in Arizona have shown to me,” Kerry said in a statement.
“These results show that our campaign is uniting Americans from different parts of our country and walks of life in a common purpose,” he added, citing his repeated campaign themes of jobs, affordable health care, national security and a willingness to stand up to powerful special interests.
Cheers swept through the Phoenix United Fire Fighters’ hall, where Kerry supporters gathered, shortly after polls closed at 7 p.m., when television networks announced the results of Arizona exit polls projecting a big win for Kerry, who came up short in South Carolina and Oklahoma.
Kerry had trailed in pre-election polls in Arizona a month ago, but rode the momentum he got by winning the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. By late last week, he had emerged as the man to beat even though Lieberman, Dean and Clark all had visited Arizona more frequently and advertised heavily.
“He’s got a lot of momentum working for him right now,” said Chandler resident John Locklin, a Mesa firefighter who gathered with other Kerry supporters Tuesday night.
Gov. Janet Napolitano appeared at the Kerry party about 9 p.m., after touring the campaign hangouts of the other presidential candidates. She was not ready to endorse Kerry or any other candidate.
The strong turnout in the Arizona primary bodes well for Democrats in the
November general election against Bush, Napolitano said.
The secretary of state’s office reported turnout was about 28 percent, or about 223,000 Democratic voters going to the polls. There are about 796,000 registered Democrats in Arizona. Party officials were predicting turnout at about 20 percent to 25 percent.
“We will be a battleground state,” Napolitano said. “I don’t think any party can claim right now that they are going to win. Both are saying that it’s going to be a good fight.”
Mario Diaz, state director for the Kerry campaign, said Kerry’s win here was the result of a strong candidate who proved he can beat Bush and an extensive ground effort mounted by his campaign workers.
In the last two weeks of the campaign, firefighter unions that were backing Kerry were making 1,500 calls a day to drum up support, Diaz said. Kerry, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, also drew strong support among veterans, Diaz said.
“It’s the electability factor,” Diaz said in assessing Kerry’s winning campaign.
Ruben Pulido, Lieberman’s spokesman in Arizona, said his candidate worked particularly hard to bring his moderate message to Arizona, and the loss was disappointing. “He never wavered. He never waffled,” Pulido said.
About 40 Arizona supporters and staff members of Lieberman learned he was ending his campaign just as the state polls closed Tuesday. They had gathered at El Portal, the south Phoenix restaurant owned by Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, D-District 5 of Phoenix, Lieberman’s Arizona campaign director.
Wilcox said the campaign might have made a mistake by not competing in the Iowa caucuses. “After the tremendous push by Kerry in New Hampshire, I think we were all were apprehensive,” Wilcox said.
“Clearly, Sen. Lieberman is such a class act,” Napolitano added. “No candidate paid more attention to Arizona than Joe Lieberman.”
At every stop, Napolitano urged the crowd to stay involved as a Democratic nominee emerges and help the party defeat Bush.
Clark supporters at the Wyndham Phoenix hotel in downtown Phoenix were excited about second place in Arizona and a close finish for first in Oklahoma. Some criticized national pundits’ view of the retired general.
“For the past three weeks, they weren’t talking about where Clark fits into the picture,” said Phillip Himel, a Phoenix landscape designer. “Yet, at the grass roots, it’s been my experience that he’s been getting a tremendous response. People who are on the road are waving at us, giving us the thumbs up and victory signs. People are excited about Clark.”
Dean was on track to score only a handful of Arizona delegates.
“It’s a bit depressing,” said Krista Pacion, 27, of Case Grande, who has volunteered for the campaign since September. “We put a lot of work into it.”
Some Dean supporters said in the end, they would vote for anyone but Bush. Others weren’t so sure.
“I will not vote for Kerry. That’s what I’m voting against — Washington politics as usual,” said Kathy Palmer, 53, of Phoenix.
The small group of Edwards backers who met at the Sports Bar and Grill in downtown Phoenix knew he wouldn’t do well in Arizona — and they didn’t care. They already were cheering as they came through the door because Edwards was winning big in South Carolina, the centerpiece of his strategy for Tuesday’s elections.