ALBUQUERQUE -- Most can only stumble through stock Spanish phrases -- and none can claim roots here -- but Democratic presidential candidates are flocking to the Southwest, talking water rights, immigration policy, and gaming before audiences of Native Americans, Latinos, and Northern transplants as the region assumes wild-card status in the battle for the Democratic nomination.
Arizona and New Mexico have not been traditional power players in the nomination process, often holding their elections too late for the results to register nationally. But for the 2004 presidential race, both have pushed their elections to the front of the nomination calendar, part of the contingent of seven contests scheduled for Feb. 3, a week after New Hampshire's primary.
Within that group, New Mexico and Arizona are particularly significant because voters there seem more undecided than in South Carolina and Missouri, where US Senator John Edwards and US Representative Richard A. Gephardt, respectively, are native sons, and Oklahoma, where Edwards and US Senator Joseph I. Lieberman have invested heavily.
Winning the Southwest, some political analysts say, would be a dramatic show of strength. With their urban centers and sizable Latino populations, Arizona and New Mexico are possible bellwethers of the monster electoral prizes of California and Texas, which vote a month later.
As such, Arizona and New Mexico would be vital links for candidates hoping to consolidate early wins, such as former Vermont governor Howard B. Dean, who leads in New Hampshire and narrowly trails Gephardt in Iowa, and those hoping to mount come-from-behind attacks, like retired Army general Wesley K. Clark, who entered the race late and has opted to skip the Iowa caucuses.
"Arizona and New Mexico are good test cases to see if Gephardt or Clark can put up a barrier to Dean," said Ruy Teixeira, a political demographer. "Those are the states where they have to stop him."
Acutely aware of this dynamic, Dean campaigned in New Mexico last week, far from the burgs of New Hampshire, where he has comfortably discussed Iraq and health care.
Standing before Native Americans in Albuquerque, Dean fielded questions about his positions on gaming and tribal sovereignty and his refusal to recognize the Abenaki tribe in Vermont, a decision he attributed to concern about the building of casinos there.
An hour later, he joined Latino leaders at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, basking in the praise of Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, chairman of the Democratic National Convention. While Richardson said he could not endorse a candidate, he all but threw his support to Dean.
Although Dean has landed a number of critical ethnic endorsements in the region, he is campaigning along broad, populist lines.
He told Native Americans last week, "The problems that you have as Native Americans are the same problems everyone else has."
Dean supporters say, among other factors, they are hoping Dean will be seen as a Democratic successor to Senator John S. McCain of Arizona, the 2000 Republican presidential contender who, like Dean, cast himself as an outspoken maverick.
"There is this attitude out here in the West that we need to speak up a little louder and be recognized," said Frank Costanzo, Dean's state director in Arizona. "And people perceive the governor that way -- willing to tell you straight out."
Dean has been among the most aggressive candidates to court New Mexico and Arizona, having made 11 trips to the states this year and hired 12 paid staff members. By contrast, Gephardt has made five trips and has four paid staff members, Clark has made four visits and has seven paid staff members, and Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts has made 10 trips since October and has 12 paid staff members.
Lieberman has made six trips to Arizona. Edwards's campaign did not return telephone calls seeking data.
With little reliable polling available in the Southwest, it is difficult to assess the candidates' standing, although some contenders say their own numbers show that the jostling has yet to register with voters.
"Arizona is wide open," said Geoff Garin, a pollster for Clark. "In part because none of the candidates, other than Joe Lieberman, are particularly well known."
Garin added that voters have responded positively to Clark's military background.
Meanwhile, Lieberman is considered a strong contender in the Southwest. In this large, spread-out region -- where television ads, not retail politics, carry the day -- his early name recognition could be key.
Also, observers say, Lieberman's moderate message could resonate with white Democrats -- particularly transplants from the North -- who tend to be more conservative and vote in greater numbers than the region's Latinos, who make up 25 percent of Arizona's population and 42 percent of New Mexico's.
"Latinos will not be the ones to tip the balance for any of the Democrats," said Richard Herrera, a professor of political science at Arizona State University. "They will be noticed, but they won't create the percentage."
There is irony in Arizona taking on outsize influence in the Democratic nomination process. It has long suffered a reputation as a poor predictor of presidential nominees, having selected John Lindsay as its Democrat of choice in 1972 and Steve Forbes as its Republican in 1996, both of whom later saw resounding defeats.
The candidates for the 2004 Democratic nomination are enduring a cultural learning curve, extending their messages beyond ethanol and family farms, which play well in Iowa, to urban sprawl and US-Mexico relations.