Democrats are eager to seize the spotlight from the California recall election, starting today with the nationally televised debate in Phoenix among their party's entire slate of candidates for president.
Much of the news about the various campaigns has been buried in an avalanche of headlines for the past week about the recall and last-minute accusations against movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But the California election is over. Schwarzenegger the Republican won. And Democrats want to ignite the nation's interest in another contest where they think the incumbent is vulnerable — the race to be president.
"We're involved in a debate that really is a fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., during a visit by the candidate Wednesday in Phoenix. "What direction are we going to go in, and can we nominate a candidate who will build on the great record of Bill Clinton and Al Gore?"
Monday's departure from the campaign trail by Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., means nine candidates will take the stage at 5 p.m. in the Orpheum Theatre for a 90-minute clash of ideas and personalities that will be broadcast by CNN.
Phoenix was selected as host for one of the six primary debates sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee because Arizona is considered a swing state where candidates can gauge their ability to raise money and attract minority voters.
The state Democratic Party handed out about 1,000 tickets by lottery for people to attend the debate. That wasn't nearly enough, though, to meet demand.
"I've lived here all of my life and here's perhaps one of the most important political events," said James Neal, an unemployed Democrat from Phoenix who didn't get a ticket. "I'm not a high roller. I'm on the outside. I'm very frustrated."
The timing of today's debate has invoked a deeper intensity among most of the campaigns, and lots of excitement among their supporters.
Paul Cash of Mesa, local coordinator for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, already was counting the hours last week until the theater doors will open. Cash is convinced the Phoenix debate will allow Dean to recapture some momentum that seemed to stall, at least briefly, after retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas charged into the race last month.
"It will give him visibility and also provide an opportunity for voters to be educated on a range of issues that are important to Arizonans," Cash said. "It's going to give him a broader audience, people who have seen him and heard his message."
Dean will be the only candidate to visit the East Valley as part of a trip to Arizona for the debate. He's expected to attract a large crowd for a 11:45 a.m. rally Thursday outside the student services building on Arizona State University's main campus in Tempe.
President Bush has largely avoided public notice of his potential challengers, with aides saying Bush will get more engaged as the likely nominee emerges in late February or early March.
But Republicans won't cede all of the national attention today to the Democratic candidates. Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, also will spend the day in Phoenix defending Bush before more than 200 journalists expected to be on hand.
Three Democratic candidates arrived in Arizona on Wednesday to get a head start on building some buzz for the debate. Lieberman was the most active, making four different stops in Phoenix where he spoke about the importance of education for non-English-speaking residents, senior health care and American Indian tribal affairs.
Clark made one visit for about 30 minutes at the Thomas J. Pappas School for homeless children in Phoenix. He talked about sports and school work with about 20 students while sharing in their breakfast of scrambled eggs with ham. But he didn't make a public statement and refused to answer any questions from reporters who wanted to ask him about the abrupt resignation of his campaign manager a day earlier.
Maricopa County Schools Superintendent Sandra Dowling said Clark listened closely as the school's staff explained how they rely almost solely on federal funding to provide a safe and stable environment for homeless children from across the Valley.
"I think the tour maybe started out as a campaign event, but by the time he left he's now an advocate," said Dowling, a Republican.
The third candidate, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., spent the night in Tucson.