PHOENIX -- It began, as political campaigns often do, with talk of lofty issues: of providing an uplifting vision for the state's future, of educating Arizona schoolchildren in the best possible environments, of caring for the elderly and, above all, of accomplishing all this without raising taxes.
With just a week remaining before the Feb. 26 runoff to elect a new Arizona governor, the campaign between Republican Fife Symington and Democrat Terry Goddard has deteriorated into a mudslinging contest, complete with negative TV ads, charges of "smear" campaigning and cries of foul from both sides.
"I am totally disgusted with you both," one woman caller told Mr. Goddard during his recent appearance on a radio talk show.
Apparently, others share her view.
An Arizona Republic poll last week reported a small rise in the number of registered voters statewide who said they would vote for neither candidate or who don't know which candidate to endorse.
Sixteen percent registered such sentiment in the survey, which was conducted Feb. 9-11, compared with 13 percent a month ago.
Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by 91,000 out of almost 1.9 million eligible voters in Arizona.
How the campaign degenerated from lofty goals to "dirty tricks," as one Symington TV ad charges, depends on which candidate is talking.
Mr. Symington maintains that, despite his intention to run an issue-oriented race, Mr. Goddard dragged him into the mud with a smear campaign aimed at him and his family.
Mr. Goddard, meanwhile, faults Mr. Symington for distorting Mr. Goddard's record in his former job as mayor of Phoenix while shielding from public scrutiny his self-proclaimed record as a successful businessman.
The candidates have held "dueling press conferences" -- called hours apart to dispute allegations and to make new ones.
On Thursday, Mr. Symington accused Mr. Goddard of receiving financial breaks and obtaining questionable loans.
Minutes later, Mr. Goddard called his opponent's statements "a really slimy, personal political attack."
A volley of negative TV spots have been aimed at discrediting the other candidate.
A Goddard ad raised the specter that Mr. Symington "could face court action in March" in connection with his role as a former director of the now-failed Southwest Savings and Loan.
Mr. Symington's attorneys demanded that the ad be withdrawn and threatened to file a lawsuit for slander.
Frustration that events outside either candidate's control have eclipsed the runoff also have played a part in the verbal escalation of the Symington-Goddard war.
Both sides acknowledge difficulty in getting their messages across at a time when public attention has been riveted on the U.S.-led attack on Iraq.
Then, on Feb. 2, the Arizona Republic disclosed a "sting" operation that resulted in 17 indictments against legislators, lobbyists and others.
The candidates are divided over whether the combination of war, scandal and negative campaigning will result in a low turnout.
Mr. Symington, a native of Baltimore, says his daily tracking poll indicates that voters are "irate" over the campaign tone and that voter backlash may work in his favor.
Mr. Goddard said, "I expect [this] week will be one of rediscovery of the campaign. But that is clearly the 11th hour."