Arizona residents will help establish the course for the next presidency on Tuesday, voting in the nation's first true coast-to-coast single-day primary.
The outcome in Arizona and more than 20 other states is all but certain to mark the make-or-break point for Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney and Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
None of the four can win their party's presidential nomination outright Tuesday, but a series of victories on either side would set clear courses for them.
"Being part of the Feb. 5 race is critical," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter based in Washington, D.C.
"There's no question that there's no clear runaway front-runner for the nominations, and so Feb. 5 is going to be the first time we can determine who has the advantage," he said.
Tuesday also will mark the next time Arizona voters will have a chance to help propel one of their own to the presidency, a task that no Arizonan has achieved yet. McCain fell short in 2000, as did Democrats Bruce Babbitt and Mo Udall and Republican Barry Goldwater in previous elections.
McCain, Romney, Clinton and Obama all have campaigned in Arizona, underscoring the emphasis all the campaigns are putting on the state.
McCain and Clinton enter the state race as the clear favorites.
McCain led Romney by 13 percentage points, according to a statewide Rocky Mountain Poll that was conducted Jan. 20-24 and released on Jan. 25.
McCain had 39 percent support among Republicans "most likely to vote," while Romney trailed with 26 percent support.
The poll also gave 9 percent to Fred Thompson and 6 percent to Rudy Giuliani, who have since dropped out, while 6 percent were undecided.
Meanwhile, Clinton held a 6 percent edge over Obama among Democrats in the same survey.
Clinton led with 38 percent support, while Obama had 32. Plenty of votes will be in play, though, as John Edwards, who has since dropped out, captured 16 percent, and 10 percent of voters were undecided.
McCain has spent most of the past several months criss-crossing other states, trusting that his reputation and record in office will carry him in his home state. Key victories in early contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida have positioned him well.
"He is going to peak at precisely the right time - and that right time is Feb. 5," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., co-chairman of McCain's state campaign. "His friends and neighbors here in Arizona are behind him all the way."
McCain's top asset is his character, a well-known attribute among Arizona voters, Kyl said.
"You don't know what the issues are going to be. President Bush didn't know, I'm sure when he was elected, that his precedency was going to be largely defined by his reaction to Sept. 11, but it has been," Kyl said.
Arizona voters are comfortable that McCain has been tested by years in both military service and political service, he said. There's no question whether McCain will win the Republican race, only by how much, he added.
Romney's Arizona team also knows it will be tough to beat McCain in his home state, and is playing down expectations of a first-place finish here. But Arizona has proven to be lucrative ground for Romney's fundraisers.
At the end of October, Romney had raised more than $1.1 million from Arizona donors. While that's half as much as McCain, it is twice the amount raised by Clinton, who ranked third in Arizona fundraising, according to an analysis of the most recent complete data done by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Jason Rose, a Romney spokesman in Arizona, said the plan here is to make a strong showing. While a close second-place showing on McCain's home turf might be pitched as a victory by campaign spinmeisters, it will do nothing to put Romney closer to the nomination. All of Arizona's 53 Republican delegates go to whoever wins the popular vote.
"A strong showing would be a strong statement and help Gov. Romney make a strong national statement," Rose said of the Arizona campaign. "He's already done that by raising a lot of money in the state."
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a Romney backer, said McCain's biggest vulnerability in Arizona is his push last year for an immigration reform package that created a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but was light on border enforcement.
McCain has since abandoned that plan, saying the American people want the border secured first.
Arpaio still holds out hope Romney can pick up a surprise victory in Arizona. "I think he's going to do good in Arizona. He could even win. There's a lot of anti-McCain people out there, believe me," Arpaio said.
As of Friday, Romney was not planning any Arizona visits before Tuesday.
Romney has made five stops in Arizona since June 2006, pairing public appearances with fundraising events in the East Valley and Phoenix.
Democrats have been dropping into the state to campaign for the primary in part because they are unwilling to concede the state to McCain, or another Republican nominee, in November. They look at an influx of residents from California and Illinois, plus President Bush's unpopularity, as reasons that the state could tilt Democratic in the general election.
"Democrats view the entire region as an opportunity, whether its Arizona or New Mexico. Democrats are increasingly excited at opportunities, both at the House level and the presidential level," said Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report.
Both Democrats have positioned themselves as agents of change after seven years under the Bush administration.
"I know that there is a lot of concerns and worries, that the state of a lot of people's homes is one of anxiety," Clinton said during a conference call with Arizona reporters last week. "They're facing foreclosures, health care costs are up, college costs are up. It's very difficult with rising unemployment to really know what's going to happen next," she said.
East Valley Democrats are ecstatic to finally have a tight race pitting dynamic candidates who are energizing voters and volunteers.
"Arizona is in play here and we're excited. Everyone wants to be engaged in this," said Beverly Fox-Miller, chairwoman of the Greater Eastern Maricopa Democrats, better known as the GEM Dems.
Every delegate counts, in Arizona and across the country, but Arizona holds a treasure trove of Hispanic voters, who traditionally lean Democrat.
The state's Hispanic base makes Arizona important for Democrats, said Arizona State University pollster and professor Bruce Merrill.
"Even when it gets to the general election, I really think this election is going to be decided on how the women vote and how the Hispanics vote," he said.
Merrill predicted that Clinton will win Arizona's Democratic primary, narrowly, with the help of women, Hispanics and longtime party loyalists.
As for the gender gap, the polls may be deceiving. Voters are more likely to tell pollsters they're reluctant to vote for a woman than they are to tell pollsters they're reluctant to vote for a black, he said.
In any case, women have done quite well in Arizona politics.
"In Arizona, though, we have a fairly long history of basically being blind to gender as an issue," said political strategist Bob Grossfeld, who worked on both of Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns. "I suspect it is less of an issue here than elsewhere," he said.
How Arizona’s delegates system works
The winner of the Republican primary in Arizona will get all 53 of the state’s delegates. Among the 21 states holding GOP primaries Tuesday, Arizona is among 11 “winner-take-all” contests.
“No math. No formulas. We like to keep it simple,” said Tony Reinhard, a state party spokesman.
The Democratic process is more complicated, so much so that the state party needs a 34-page report to explain it. But here are the basics:
Delegates are awarded to candidates on a proportional basis, with a minimum 15 percent threshold to win any of them.
The delegates are apportioned based on how many votes the candidates receive in each congressional district. The number of delegates per district is determined by Democratic voter turnout percentage in the last two general elections. Southeastern Arizona’s District 8 scored the most delegates, with six.
There are 67 total delegates, of which 56 will be pledged to a candidate. Pledged delegates are the ones at stake Tuesday.
The 11 unpledged “super” delegates are six Democratic National Committee members (including Gov. Janet Napolitano), the four Democratic members of Congress and a “respected party leader” to be chosen at the state convention in April. They can throw their support to any candidate they choose at the party’s August national convention.
Of the pledged delegates, 19 are statewide and 37 are chosen by district. Among the 19 statewide delegates, seven are party leaders and elected officials who will be chosen at the April convention.
Tribune writers Mark Flatten and Mary K. Reinhart contributed
to this report.