There is one overriding issue on the minds of Arizona Democrats going into the Feb. 3 election to pick their party’s nominee for president.
Which of the seven candidates still in the race can beat President Bush?
That is the assessment of pollsters, political insiders and rankand-file Democrats, who say the campaign being waged in state-tostate battlegrounds will be won or lost on who emerges as the best hope of winning back the White House from the Republican president.
"I want to hear from the guy that’s going to be able to beat Bush," said Bob Bloom, 67, an undecided Democrat who lives in Mesa. "I don’t know what it’s going to take, but that’s the guy I want to support no matter who it is on the Democratic side."
Arizona has emerged as a make-or-break state for Democrats. A month ago, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean seemed to be running away from the pack, with huge margins in the polls both nationally and within the state. About the first of the year retired Gen. Wesley Clark started coming on strong here, with the rest of the field clustered in single digits.
But the dynamics changed last week when Sen. John Kerry, DMass., surged late and scored a decisive win in Iowa. Voters in New Hampshire go to the polls Tuesday. If Kerry remains strong, he will be looking to Arizona to fortify his standing as the man to beat, according to political insiders. Perhaps as important, Arizona is likely to become the last stand for weaker candidates who are not able to score a victory by primary day, they said.
"I think coming into Arizona we’ll have probably four viable candidates, and by the time they leave Arizona, maybe two," said longtime Valley pollster Bruce Merrill, a professor at Arizona State University. "I think Arizona could be really important in saying there are two viable candidates coming out of here."
Arizona also will be a litmus test for how the candidates can fare in a moderate, diverse state, said Bob Grossfeld, a Tempe political consultant who works primarily for Democrats. The race here became particularly important after the primary was moved from a later date in February, he said.
"Arizona is now probably the first test of a swing state, of a state that Democrats really have to win in order to win in November," Grossfeld said.
A CRITICAL DAY
Arizona is one of seven states that will hold primary elections or party caucuses on Feb. 3. Though it has only 64 of the 4,322 voting delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Boston, it is seen as a good gauge of the rest of the country, said Jim Pederson, state Democratic Party chairman.
Aside from its early date in the primary lineup, Arizona has a diverse demographic mix, he said. It also is a state where Republicans have long dominated, but Democrats have made significant gains, Pederson said.
President Bill Clinton in 1996 was the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state in a general election since Harry Truman. In the 2000 election, Bush carried the state by about six percentage points. Arizona will also be the first Western state in the Democratic campaign.
All of those factors make the state critical for those vying for the nomination, Pederson said.
"It may be a make-or-break day for a couple of the candidates, but I think there’s a good possibility that coming out of Arizona there’s still going to be a degree of uncertainty as to who the nominee is going to be," Pederson said. "I know a lot of people in our party are quite anxious to get that nominee. We have a message, we just need a messenger right now."
Dean, Clark and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman have spent the most time and money courting Arizona voters. All three have run ad campaigns here. Kerry has not been advertising here, but does have a strong campaign organization in place, Pederson said.
Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who finished second in Iowa, has not had a significant presence in Arizona and has yet to open a campaign office here. Among the other two candidates, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, has done some campaigning in Arizona. He and activist the Rev. Al Sharpton barely register in state polls.
Both Clark and Lieberman bypassed the Iowa caucuses to focus their campaigns on New Hampshire.
Though Kerry had been running in the middle of the pack in Arizona polls as late as two weeks ago, his win in Iowa and the apparent collapse of the Dean campaign have completely changed the dynamics of the race, said pollster Earl de Berge of the Behavior Research Center.
De Berge agreed Democrats are looking for a strong contender who can beat Bush, whose numbers in recent polls show vulnerability.
"Democrats are more interested in who can beat Bush than they are in ideological perfection," de Berge said.
Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, where campaigning is done face to face, Arizona elections often hinge largely on advertising and media attention, he said. That has been a big advantage for Kerry following his win in Iowa, de Berge said.
Though he has not conducted a poll of the race since the Iowa caucus, de Berge said he senses Kerry is pulling ahead in Arizona and Dean, who has led here since the beginning of the campaign, is fading.
One trend that is clear from earlier polling is that the vast majority of Democrats who do cite a preference are not firmly committed and could change their minds before the election, de Berge said.
Kerry’s experience in Congress and history as a Vietnam War hero is resonating with voters who are giving him a new look as their best rival to Bush, de Berge said.
Polls show Bush is strongest on issues relating to national defense and combatting terrorism, de Berge said. He is weaker on domestic issues such as health care and the economy, de Berge said.
"One of the things that Democrats may sense is that if they can get a veteran, in this case a war hero, this may take terrorism and Iraq off the table for the president as anchor issues and force him into domestic issues where they think he is weaker," de Berge said, adding the assessment applies to both Kerry and Clark. "If this campaign shifts to a real hard-nosed debate of domestic issues, the president’s going to have to come out and be more specific about where he’s going."
De Berge’s assessment jibes with that of Jen Schlitz of Scottsdale, an undecided Democrat who said she is leaning toward Kerry or Clark, who retired in 2000 as a top Army general.
"From what I can see about Clark and Kerry, they are very strong on foreign policy," Schlitz said. "If that’s going to be an issue for somebody voting for Bush rather than a Democrat, I think that’s going to be important."
Schlitz said she also likes Edwards’ message. But she is concerned about the lack of experience for the senator who is still in his first term.
"I just don’t know if he’s got enough political experience to beat Bush," she said. "I hate to base my decision on polls, but I’m going to look at a strong candidate that I feel can beat Bush because that’s my primary concern."
While the dynamics of the race in Arizona may change as the horse race progresses through the New Hampshire primary, candidates who worked the state early will likely hold much of their ground because of the popularity of early voting, said Grossfeld, the Tempe political consultant.
A large percentage of the state’s votes could be cast before the New Hampshire primary, which means the outcome in that state would have less impact in Arizona than other Feb. 3 primaries, he said.
"It’s like ‘whoa,’ there’s a whole different set of dynamics in play here that are really fascinating," Grossfeld said. "This is going to be a place to watch. When we hit Feb. 3, the major candidates and most of the (nation’s) attention will be on Arizona."