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THOMAS OLIPHANT

After the debates, Arizona is in play

PHOENIX

THIS FASCINATING state is like the rest of the country politically -- except that it's about two weeks behind the trend.

On the day of last week's final presidential debate, both campaigns agreed that John Kerry had been closing on President Bush and was probably sitting just outside the margin for polling error. The one publicly available survey, by Northern Arizona University, showed the President with just half his September lead, up 5 points.

The reaction to the debate was no different here than nationally -- Kerry stronger than Bush but not overwhelmingly so.

Kerry got credit for putting national issues in local terms. With healthcare, for example, he was careful to note that 20 percent of Arizona's 5.5 million residents lack any coverage at all, with more than 25 percent of them children.

After the debate, Republican leaders chose to emphasize their confidence that Bush cannot lose Arizona's 10 electoral votes.

Campaign manager Ken Mehlman said flatly, "They gave up. The Kerry campaign gave up its advertising here."

Except for the reference to TV, Mehlman's message was the same as the national Bush message before the debates began on Sept. 30 -- that the election was essentially decided.

To Democratic activists, that misses the point. They argue that without the clutter of television advertising -- but with the presence of campaign organization every bit as big as the Bush campaign's -- voters here got to watch the first three debates without commercial interference, and that is why Bush's margin shrank so fast.

Going down the stretch, they have successfully pleaded with national Kerry-Edwards officials to stay off the air and let the news and their work on the ground be the campaign. Kerry's state director, Doug Wilson, speaks with poetic conviction when he says, "Without the spin, we can win."

In the absence of commercials (the Republicans pulled their ads as well), the news dominates -- a point driven home here the day after the debate.

From Baghdad came the news that one of the Americans missing and presumed dead in the suicide attacks on the fortified Green Zone was from the suburban community of Mesa.

All day, local television focused on the scene of people going in and out of the home where the wife of 36-year-old Ferdinand Ibara, an employee of a private security firm, was secluded.

In addition to keeping the state's commercial stations free of advertising for now, both sides also share a belief that the wild card down the stretch is the issue of immigration. A national conservative group has picked Arizona as the market for a referendum that would require proof of citizenship for voters and special checks on applications for benefits programs. Earlier this year, support for Proposition 200 was hitting 70 percent in the polls, but without the support of a single member of the Republican-dominated congressional delegation it has slipped below 60 percent lately.

Latinos compose a quarter of the state's population, although the voting population is much smaller but is rising rapidly, and how much it rises this year is one of the keys to the election. The other wild card is Native Americans, overwhelmingly Democratic because of federal budgets cuts affecting economic development and health care. Wilson says there are 20,000 to 30,000 new registrants who exist outside traditional opinion polling databases.

A third major unknown is the still-explosive population growth and the same kind of jump in voter registration that has been observed elsewhere.

The population growth is no longer retirees and good-life seekers from the Frost Belt.

More and more, the arrivals are from theWest Coast seeking a fresh start. The voting rolls, meanwhile, have exploded (68,000 more independents registered just in surrounding Maricopa County) and there has been a record number of applications for mail-in ballots.

Al Gore lost Arizona, as he lost a half-dozen states four years ago, by not competing as he ran low on cash down the stretch. His deficit was nonetheless just 6 points, with 3 points wasted on Ralph Nader.

This year's campaign is different; it has been closer and more hotly contested in more places than the Bush-Gore contest.

There are several Democratic "blue" states in play (Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, for sure, and possibly New Jersey), just as there are "red" states (Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, West Virginia, possibly Arkansas).

Four years ago, the battle in the West was really over New Mexico, which Gore won in a squeaker. This year it's also over Colorado, Nevada, and this intriguing state with a Republican leaning but increasingly younger demographic.

At least for now, Bush's debate performances have made Arizona competitive.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com. 

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