Arizona runoff brings out worst in both candidates On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

February 22, 1991|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

Phoenix--IN THE MIDST of the final televised debate between Arizona gubernatorial runoff candidates Fife Symington, the Republican, and Terry Goddard, the Democrat, lightning struck the television tower and blacked out the telecast in Phoenix.

Both candidates quipped later that maybe God was trying to tell them something. But what they fear more as next Tuesday's election approaches is that voters will also tell them something by staying away from the polls in droves.

Part of the wrath, from earthly critics at least, stems from the ungodly length of the gubernatorial campaign. It has been stretched an additional four months because Symington in edging Goddard by 4,300 votes in November failed to win a majority in a three-man race, necessitating the Symington-Goddard runoff.

The unusual general-election runoff is a result of Arizonans' dismay in 1986 that ultraconservative Republican Evan Mecham, subsequently impeached, was elected by a simple plurality in a multi-candidate field. To eliminate the chances of having another plurality governor, the runoff law was passed, but a pro-life third candidate skimmed off just enough votes to deny Symington a majority.

Campaign fatigue is not the only cause of voter discontent with the governor's race. Arizonans are suffering from an overdose of political corruption starting with the savings-and-loan scandal involving their two U.S. senators and made worse by a recent police sting operation that bagged seven state legislators on bribery charges.

Police tapes showing them taking payoffs and kidding about hidden cameras have been regular television fare here since the Feb. 2 indictments, not helping the climate in which Symington and Goddard are running.

To make matters worse the two candidates, to combat the heavy focus on the sting and the Persian Gulf in the Arizona news media, have engaged in a war of their own of very negative charges and television ads that have further soured the political climate here.

That climate ordinarily might be expected to benefit Symington, a Baltimore-transplanted Phoenix real-estate developer running as a citizen-politician and successful businessman against a professional politician -- Goddard, a former Phoenix mayor.

But Goddard has taken dead aim on Symington's credentials as a business whiz, reporting that he owes some $220,000 in delinquent property taxes and suggesting in one ad that his former directorship in a failed S&L means he "could face court action in March."

The latter suggestion, unsupported by any court action, inspired Symington to hit back, charging that Goddard had already "violated the state's campaign finance law" by accepting a law-firm salary while campaigning, without spending the stipulated hours on legal work.

The bitterness was compounded when Symington, in Washington for a fund-raiser, was called before a Senate Judiciary subcomittee headed by Democratic Sen. Howard Metzenbaum and accused of S&L wrongdoing. The Symington campaign charged foul play so close to the runoff date and aired a commercial showing Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole on the Senate floor accusing the Democrats of a political "sneak attack" on Symington.

The ad then, in the cheapest shot of the campaign, showed a photo of Goddard with jail bars superimposed and a jail door slamming closed on him as the ad's narrator asks: "How can anyone trust Terry Goddard, when the fact is he's broken the law?"

At the time the commercial was made, a former state attorney general had ruled there was no impropriety, but the new attorney general has just written Goddard saying a violation now "appears to exist."

The fallout from all this is anybody's guess, and most are guessing one result will be a particularly low turnout in a special election that normally would draw only the strongly motivated. -- With the Republicans holding a 93,000 registration edge, and new state GOP chairman Gerald Davis mobilizing a strong absentee-voter drive to all registered Republicans, Symington is given the edge. Some here say, however, that Arizonans increasingly ignore party labels and the Democrats are better at getting their votes out.

But considering the wearying length of the campaign, and the ugly political climate now existing in Arizona as a backdrop, few are willing to predict with certainty how Arizonans who are mad as hell and don't want to take it anymore will react -- except that they may stay home by the thousands on Tuesday.

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