Southwest electoral votes could be pivotal

October 18, 2004|By Jules Witcover

PHOENIX, Ariz. --The selection of what folks here call the Valley of the Sun as the site of the final presidential debate was a recognition of the Southwest's tremendous population growth, crowned by Phoenix passing Philadelphia as the nation's fifth-largest city.

Heavy registration of new voters in Arizona, with 10 electoral votes, and neighboring New Mexico, with five, made this corner of the country an early battleground this year, bringing more political attention to the states than anytime in the past.

But the John Kerry campaign recently pulled its ads from Arizona airwaves to concentrate on other swing states, including New Mexico, in a move widely interpreted as an admission that Arizona was beyond reach. Democratic state Chairman Jim Pederson says, however, the aggressive registration of new, first-time voters can dispel "the myth of Arizona as forever a conservative Republican state."

Both President Bush and Mr. Kerry touched down in Arizona and New Mexico on the eve of Wednesday's debate, knowing that, as in 2000, one or more small states could decide the election Nov. 2.

With the debates over, the hard work to finish the sale now falls not only on the candidates but also on the legions of campaign workers, paid and volunteer, who both sides say constitute the largest field offices ever assembled in both states.

Republicans in Arizona, which Mr. Bush won by 6 percent over Democrat Al Gore four years ago, are nevertheless nervously eyeing a rejuvenation in the state Democratic Party that began two years ago with the election of Gov. Janet Napolitano.

Regarded since the 1960s as "Goldwater Country" under the leadership of Sen. Barry Goldwater, Arizona was a key incubator of conservative Republicanism. After Harry S. Truman carried the state in 1948, the only Democrat able to break the Republican hold was Bill Clinton in 1996. And the junior Mr. Bush brought it back into the GOP column four years later.

But the Democrats are determined to use the November vote to dispel "the myth" that Arizona is safe for the Republicans.

Mr. Pederson and the Kerry campaign, headed by Doug Wilson, who ran the state for Mr. Clinton in 1996, have 30 campaign offices across this huge state in an organization that Mr. Wilson calls "probably the most meticulous and focused in my political life."

Bob Fannin, the state GOP chairman, counters that the Republicans, historically superior organizers here, have registered 80,000 new voters and "we're not taking anything for granted because the election can swing wildly at the last minute."

A Northern Arizona University poll published in The Arizona Republic on the day of the third debate had Mr. Kerry trailing Mr. Bush by only 44 percent to 49, a five-point gain since their first encounter.

Mr. Pederson calls the pulling of Kerry ads "regrettable" because it seemed to reinforce "the myth," and he says a victory for Mr. Kerry in Arizona can go a long way to burying it. He suggests that the surge of new voter registrations, often corralling first-time voters among Hispanics and Native Americans, has been missed by pollsters who have Mr. Bush ahead here.

In New Mexico, Kerry spokesman Ruben Pulido Jr. makes the same argument about unpolled new voters. But Danny Diaz, his counterpart for Mr. Bush, says a comparable new Republican registration drive will recapture the state that Mr. Bush lost to Mr. Gore in 2000 by a mere 366 votes, the closest margin in that election.

In both states, a new "Native Vote '04" drive is under way on the reservations of more than 20 Native American tribes. Jacob Moore, a spokesman for the drive, says it could favor the Democrats, who backed a controversial Arizona ballot initiative in 2002 sustaining gaming rights on the reservations over Republican opposition in the state legislature.

On election night, the television networks doubtless will be focused on the fates of Florida's 27 electoral votes and Ohio's 20 as the keys to the election. But in a close race as in 2000, Arizona's 10 and New Mexico's five could just as well be decisive.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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