Former President Bill Clinton served as the headliner at a fundraiser for U.S. Senate candidate Jim Pederson on Thursday, underscoring the national attention that the race is attracting.
Pederson, a Democrat and developer who has never held public office, has launched a serious challenge to two-term incumbent Republican Jon Kyl.
Speaking before a crowd of 500 Democratic supporters at the $500-a-plate event in Phoenix, Clinton criticized the Republican administration.
Clinton said that since President Bush took over the White House, he has created a record deficit.
Voters in favor of record debt should vote for Kyl because of his support for Bush's spending policies, Clinton said. "If you don't, then you should vote for Jim Pederson because the Democrats are the party of fiscal responsibility," he said.
Clinton appealed to those in attendance to help Pederson fill his campaign coffers.
"He can win this race, but you're going to have to give him enough money to make sure he doesn't get counted out in these ad wars and you're going to have to give him enough shoe leather," he said.
The dinner at the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa raised more than $250,000 for Pederson's campaign.
In January, Kyl was ahead by a 55 percent to 26 percent margin, according a statewide survey of registered voters conducted by the Phoenix polling firm Behavior Research Center.
Last month, after a series of television commercials by the candidates, the spread narrowed in the poll, with 40 percent saying they would elect Kyl, and 33 percent for Pederson. The rest were uncommitted.
The Senate race is focused largely on the candidates’ positions on immigration reform, which are very similar.
Pederson, former chairman of the state Democratic Party, recently fueled his campaign with $3.2 million of his own money.
Both want to increase security at the border, create a temporary worker program and provide a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants already living in the United States.
The difference is slight. While Kyl envisions most illegal immigrants returning to their countries to apply for legal status in the United States, Pederson would allow them to apply from within the United States.
Pederson’s plan is more closely aligned with a measure approved last month by the U.S. Senate. Kyl, who voted against the plan, is one of the delegates working out a compromise with the House, whose bill seeks increased border security without provisions for legalizing foreign workers.
In attempts to differentiate themselves, both candidates have tried to portray each other as extremists. They also have tangled over the price of gas and prescription drugs.
The candidates have agreed in principle to debate each other, but they have yet to agree on a date or venue.