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Long a Republican Bulwark, a Growing Arizona Is in Play

BATTLEGROUND STATES First in an occasional series on closely contested states in the 2004 presidential campaign.

September 16, 2004|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — Louie Gomez lives in the new Arizona -- the nation's second-fastest-growing state, where transplants from other regions are altering an entrenched conservative political culture.

"I think it's time for a change," said Gomez, 36, who moved here from New Mexico less than two years ago, frets about the economy and plans to vote for Sen. John F. Kerry.

Violet Newton represents the old Arizona, where residents have chosen a Democratic presidential candidate only once since 1948, government regulation is well nigh an expletive and President Bush just leapt ahead in the polls after months in a virtual dead heat with his rival.

"We don't believe in abortion," said the retired Realtor from Sun City as she relaxed in her electric cart with its faux leopard seat cover and "Bush-Cheney" bumper sticker. "We don't believe in same-sex marriage. That tears the family down. We choose the man who's for the family."

Newton's Arizona has long been a Republican bastion. Gomez's Arizona, especially as viewed through Phoenix's booming suburbs, is more politically complex and unpredictable.

"The population of the state is growing rapidly, and we're getting an influx of people from around the country, a lot of Californians," said Fred Solop, professor of political science at Northern Arizona University. "The political culture has been historically Republican, yet the culture is in flux.... Arizona is a battleground state."

With 10 electoral votes -- up from eight after the 2000 census -- Arizona is one of the biggest prizes among swing states west of the Mississippi River.

Bush beat Vice President Al Gore here four years ago by 6 percentage points, a margin viewed as surprisingly small. With the state's population continuing to grow -- swelled in large part by Latinos -- Democrats think they have a good chance to steal Arizona from the GOP in November.

Kerry has campaigned in Arizona three times since clinching his party's presidential nomination in March; his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, is scheduled to visit on Sept. 22.

Sen. John Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, packed more than 10,000 supporters into the Tucson convention center Monday, where the crowd roared its approval as he admonished Republicans for scoffing at his notion of two Americas divided by race and class.

Republicans remain confident they will hold Arizona, but the party is hardly taking it for granted. Bush has stopped in the state three times this year. And during the first full week of September, the president and the Republican National Committee spent $162,000 on television commercials targeting Arizonans, almost twice as much as the Democrats spent.

Politically, the state's economic picture could cut either way. The July unemployment rate, recently announced, dropped to 4.4%, compared with 5.5% nationwide. And, unlike many parts of the country, Arizona has gained jobs since Bush took office, especially during the last two years.

Still, the manufacturing and technology sectors remain on the decline. Companies are keeping their staffing "lean," said Don Wehbey, senior economist at the state Department of Economic Security.

The greatest job growth has been in service industries, where wages tend to be low and benefits slim. And overall, job creation is not keeping up with population growth.

Democrats add the checkered economy to other factors and see opportunity in November.

An energized state party helped Democrat Janet Napolitano, then state attorney general, become governor in 2002. And the political loyalties of Arizonans increasingly are up for grabs -- nearly one in four registered voters is an independent.

Republicans, however, still make up 40% of the electorate. And there are signs that the state's GOP heritage may be reasserting itself.

A poll taken for the Arizona Republic and released last week showed Bush ahead of Kerry, 54% to 38%. In contrast, the newspaper's polls in August and June had Bush ahead of Kerry by just 3 percentage points, a lead within the survey's margin of error.

The new poll numbers ricocheted through both parties, with Kerry officials insisting that Bush was simply benefiting from a successful convention, though Republicans said the figures were evidence of Arizona's proud GOP tradition.

At least one political scientist declared the race largely over.

"Bush is clearly ahead now in Arizona, has been slightly ahead for several months and will win Arizona ... unless there's some major thing that shakes up the system," said Bruce Merrill, director of the Walter Cronkite Media Research Center at Arizona State University and head of the university's Cactus State Poll.

Nonsense, said Jim Pederson, the state Democratic Party chairman. "I could eat crow, but within 30 days, we're going to be dead even -- as we were before the [Republican] convention," Pederson said. "And it'll be a sprint to the finish. Because the issues that existed before the convention still do."

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