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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Chipping Away at Loyalty in Bush Country

President still has strong support in conservative bastion, but 9/11 has also introduced doubt.

March 28, 2004|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — At his rustic three-chair barber shop just off this old gold-mining town's cozy central square, John Olvera probably stays more connected to what's on people's minds than any preacher, bartender or therapist from here to Tuba City.

And when it comes to taking sides in presidential politics, Olvera is not afraid to tell you: This is George W. Bush country, plain and simple, a place where a gun is a man's best friend and law and order is the required way of life.

As he evened sideburns last week, the veteran barber heard all about the goings-on in Washington -- how the 9/11 commission asserted that President Bush ignored several credible terrorist threats before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Worse, he read in the papers about how the White House's former counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, has published a book suggesting that Bush used the tragedy as an excuse to invade Iraq.

All across America, other voters heard the same news. In this election year, Olvera was asked, could the allegations damage Bush's credibility as a president firmly in control of the domestic war on terrorism? Was the tough-talking Bush administration asleep at the wheel of national security?

No way, he says. In fact, Olvera thinks this Republican town has heard about all the criticism of his president it can stand.

Many locals place the blame for 9/11 squarely on the shoulders of former President Clinton, who they say had eight years in the White House to protect America from attack. And they dismiss Clarke as just another author trying to create controversy to pump up sales of his new book.

But there are also cracks in the community's conservative world view. Some Prescott residents are troubled by Clarke's allegations and are reassessing Bush.

"I think this 9/11 business should damage him," Republican Pat Forrest, who voted for Bush in 2000, said as she stood in lobby of the 100-year-old Hassayampa Hotel. "I believe in the old adage that where there's smoke there's usually fire."

Olvera dismisses such talk with a wave of his scissors.

"If people believe what they read in newspapers, this stuff might damage the president," he said, standing beneath the hunting trophies that peer down from the wall above. "But if they go with their gut, they'll give him another chance."

If there's any place in America that might be sympathetic toward the president's difficulties last week, it's probably Prescott. This conservative town lies at the heart of a GOP-controlled congressional district in a state long ago staked as Republican turf.

Founded in 1864 as Arizona's first territorial capital when President Lincoln created the Arizona Territory, Prescott now serves as the seat of Yavapai County. Located atop the windswept high plains 100 miles north of Phoenix, the town of 30,000 residents has fought to preserve its conservative small-town roots -- it's still 60% registered Republican.

As a teenager, Richard Nixon spent several summers here. Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor have houses near here.

Forty years ago, within sight of nearby Thumb Butte, Arizona native son and U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater came to Prescott's town square to announce his campaign for the presidency against Lyndon B. Johnson, extolling on the evils of communism and liberals as well.

Perhaps in the spirit of its former outlaw past, Prescott has been willing to forgive its civic leaders and look the other way when they get into trouble. When the mayor was arrested for drunk driving, there was no move to throw him out of office. And when a local hospital director was charged with soliciting a prostitute down in Tucson, he also kept his job.

But the political landscape is changing here, a result of the area's sprawling growth and an influx of new residents from Phoenix and Southern California who prefer the area's temperate climate and four seasons. And many of the new arrivals are Democrats, officials say.

While the state voted for Bush over Al Gore in 2000, Arizona is considered a swing state this year. And Yavapai County may also be up for grabs.

Strategists in each of the major political parties have targeted the sprawling 1st Congressional District, which includes Prescott, as one of the relatively few nationwide that could be seriously competitive in November.

The incumbent, freshman Republican Rick Renzi, is expected to face a strong challenge from Paul Babbitt, a longtime county supervisor in the Flagstaff area and the brother of Bruce Babbitt, a former governor and U.S. Interior secretary.

The state elected a Democrat as governor last year and party faithful say they're ready to help put a Democrat in the White House. But despite the criticism leveled against the president over the 9/11 attacks, loyal Republicans in Prescott aren't ready to throw in the political towel just yet.

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