Given how quickly political fortunes can rise and fall in Arizona, calculating who the Republicans will be running for governor in 2006 is no easy task.
The equation got a little simpler last week when Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., let it be known that he would not be running, but would instead seek another term in Congress.
Today, the favorite seems to be former Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley, who did not seek re-election in November and thus far has given the most "definite maybe" among the potential candidates.
Then there’s former Gov. Fife Symington, who has said he might run if neither Hayworth nor Romley is in the race. Symington’s prior tenure ended abruptly in 1997 when he was convicted of federal fraud charges related to his private business. Those convictions were later overturned on appeal, and he subsequently was pardoned by former President Bill Clinton.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has had a long-running feud with Romley, isn’t tipping his hand, but makes little effort to conceal his political distaste for the excounty attorney. Arpaio once said he would shave his head if Romley is ever elected governor. The two often clashed over both criminal and civil cases while Romley was running the county attorney’s office.
Add to that mix a cluster of Republican legislators or other elected officials at varying levels who could join the fray and the math involved with charting the odds gets fuzzy.
Hayworth’s announcement is a boost for Romley, who would be a strong candidate against Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano 20 months from now, said Bruce Merrill, a longtime Valley pollster and communications professor at Arizona State University.
"It propels Romley into the front position," Merrill said of Hayworth’s decision.
Among the pluses for Romley are his status as a Vietnam War hero, which will make him popular among the state’s 600,000 veterans, and the solid reputation he built as a tough crime fighter while county attorney, Merrill said.
Romley, a former Marine, was severely wounded in 1969 when he stepped on a land mine in Vietnam, losing both legs. As the county’s chief prosecutor, he made national headlines by going after crooked politicians in the AzScam political corruption case in 1991 and pedophile Catholic priests last year.
More problematic for Romley: He is not well-known outside of Maricopa County and is viewed as a moderate on many social issues, which could hurt him among the very conservative wing of the Republican Party, Merrill said.
Romley said he is still assessing the personal toll that re-entering politics would bring. But he said if he does run, he can beat Napolitano.
Romley said he is known outside Maricopa County, and frequently speaks to political and veterans’ groups throughout the state. Romley also got exposure in Tucson and rural areas when he campaigned heavily for President Bush last year.
Arpaio, who has long ranked among the state’s most popular politicians in public opinion polls, said he will not rule out running for governor.
"I’ve learned one thing in this political game — you never say never," Arpaio said. "You never know what the future holds."
In the last two gubernatorial elections, Arpaio has given signals that he would run, but then opted to remain sheriff. In 2002, he rankled many Republicans by doing a commercial for the Napolitano campaign in which he defended her from attacks coming from an opponent.
Arpaio said he never endorsed Napolitano, a former U.S. Attorney and state attorney general, but rather came to the defense of a fellow law enforcement officer who was being unfairly maligned.
Symington could not be reached for comment. Neither could Grant Woods, the former state attorney general whose name sometimes pops up as a potential Republican gubernatorial candidate.
Another name churning through Republican circles is U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona. A spokesman for Carmona said Friday the Tucson physician is content with the job he has, but would not comment directly on whether he is a potential gubernatorial candidate.
Merrill said whomever the Republicans ultimately nominate, they face a tough battle with Napolitano, who scored very high ratings in recent polls of voter satisfaction. Napolitano has not tried to raise taxes, has limited government growth and helped maintain a pro-business climate in Arizona, Merrill said.
Her most controversial issue has been her push for state-paid full-day kindergarten, which is popular among voters, he said.
"She’s going to be a very, very formidable candidate," Merrill said. "She doesn’t make many mistakes."