As a traditionally Republican state, Arizona seems an odd place to become a critical battleground for Democrats who want to challenge President Bush in 2004.
But Arizona is scheduled to have one of the nation’s earliest primaries next year. And a relatively young Gov. Janet Napolitano has caught the eye of national Democratic Party officials and media outlets for her potential to strengthen her party. Those and other factors have prompted most presidential contenders to visit Arizona.
Four Democratic candidates plan to visit Phoenix in the next two weeks. Carol Moseley Braun, a former Illinois congresswoman and former U.S. ambassador to New Zealand, will make her first stop today for the NAACP Image Awards.Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Rep. Richard Gephardt, D- Mo., will return Tuesday for competing appearances. And Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., will speak at an April 21 fundraiser luncheon for the Maricopa County party committee, his fourth trip to the state since October.
"It’s going to be constant between now and the election," said Jim Pederson, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "The presidential primary is going to put a focus on our state, put a focus on our issues. It’s going to be a focus on what Arizona is all about."
Pederson took control of the state party in January 2001 and is trying to convince national party leaders that the home of the late Sen. Barry Goldwater could become a proving ground for Democrats.
"A big part of my job in the last two years has been going back to Washington and kind of trying to allay the notion . . . that we are some kind of farright-wing backwater, which we are not at all," Pederson said. "I’m tired of Arizona being ignored."
He persuaded the Democratic National Committee to drop a rule that prevented the state party from participating in Arizona’s late February presidential primary. That allowed Napolitano to move the 2004 primary to Feb. 3, just after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
The state Republican Party, with Bush as its standardbearer, has no need for a highprofile primary. So the GOPcontrolled Legislature has approved a bill that would cut $3 million in state funding, crippling the event. Napolitano has said she will veto the measure as petty politics and she expects to have enough votes to prevent an override.
State GOP Chairman Bob Fannin acknowledged that Republicans will benefit from a national Democratic competition waged in Arizona.
"It does help in the sense that people of Arizona would have the opportunity firsthand to see the differences between the candidates and President Bush, how much stronger he is than (the Democrats) who are out there so far," Fannin said.
Napolitano said she is making no effort to back any candidate.
"With the Legislature still in session, with the 2004 budget still at issue, with homeland security, with the fact that we have thousands of Arizona families who have military personnel abroad, the presidential race is not the highest thing on my priority list," she said.