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Long a Republican Bulwark, a Growing Arizona Is in Play

Times Staff Writer

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

And so do the demographics, which have fueled change in Arizona for more than a decade. Between 1990 and 2000, the state population grew 40%. By 2003, the latest statistics available, it had jumped an additional 8.8%, to nearly 5.6 million people.

In the first three years of the 21st century, Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and Tempe, added more new residents than any U.S. county but Los Angeles. Latinos make up a quarter of the state’s population and could reach more than 40% in the next decade or so.

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Although some of the growth has been in Phoenix’s more Republican suburbs, political scientist Richard Herrera of Arizona State University said the demographic trends had “helped Democrats more than Republicans. The statewide races have become closer. The governor and attorney general are Democrats.” Elizabeth Fraser, 34, is evidence of Herrera’s theory. The registered independent was a lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area, but her husband couldn’t find a job. A year ago, the couple packed up their “No War In Iraq” window sign and moved from Berkeley to an earth-tone subdivision bordered by cotton fields on the western edge of Phoenix.

Her husband found work at a defense contractor, and they can afford to live on his salary while Fraser stays home to care for their 10-month-old daughter, Nuala. But Fraser worries about the economy and plans to return to work."We’re saving up money because we don’t know what the future holds,” she said.

She’ll vote for Kerry because of her concerns about the economy and the war in Iraq. But she added, “I would be really, really surprised if Kerry could pull it off in Arizona.”

Fellow Arizona newcomer Eric Ivey, 30, acknowledges that the economy has been troubled in recent years. But he points to reports of improved job growth and dropping unemployment rates and concludes that Bush has done a fine job overall.

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It’s unfair that “Bush got the blame” for the economic downturn, said Ivey, who manages housekeeping services at the Desert Sky Mall in Phoenix. “Just like [former President] Clinton got the credit for the dot-com boom. It was going to happen anyway.”

Besides, terrorism and the fight to strengthen America are at the forefront for this young, single Republican, who moved to the Phoenix suburbs from Nashville in February and sees Bush as the best man to protect the country.

When Ivey was younger, his father was in the copper mining industry and the family lived in Peru, which was beset by guerrilla groups.

“When we would go to Lima, we’d ride around in bullet-proof cars and have bodyguards,” said Ivey. “We’re not ever going to prevent [terrorism], but I think you just don’t sit there and roll over and take it on the chin.”

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Ivey is the kind of voter state GOP Chairman Bob Fannin describes when he argues that demographic changes don’t hurt his party. New residents come here for a variety of reasons, he said, including “to get away from high taxes and government regulation like you see in California.”

With the general election shifting into high gear, both campaigns are turning up their get-out-the-vote efforts, and they are focusing on two increasingly key voting blocs, Latinos and Native Americans.

Each party is counting on the state’s vote-by-mail system to improve turnout among Latinos. On Tuesday, the Kerry campaign kicked off a weeklong bus tour to bring Latino voters into the Democratic fold.

“There’s a huge Latino vote, and it’s emerging in importance,” said political scientist Solop. While acknowledging that Latino turnout has traditionally lagged voting as a whole, the population is “increasing rapidly, faster than other groups.... Because the Latino vote is not monolithic, it’s an important vote for both sides to appeal to.”

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The parties also are making stronger-than-usual appeals to Native American voters. The Bush campaign for the first time has translated its literature here into various Native American languages, Fannin said. And representatives from both parties headed to the Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock last weekend to woo what they view as a small but crucial slice of the electorate.

The Kerry campaign even sponsored the fair’s Friday night rodeo; when bulls and riders came charging out of the chutes, an announcer exhorted spectators to vote Democratic, said Kerry spokeswoman Sue Walitsky.

With Native Americans making up about 5% of the population, Arizona has one of the largest Indian enclaves in the country. Navajos represent the biggest tribe and traditionally vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

The gaming industry has grown significantly on tribal lands, and part of the proceeds go to the state’s budget. As a result, said Solop, politicians more and more are seeking audiences with the Arizona Indian Gaming Assn., evidence of the “increasing power of Native Americans in the state.”

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Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.

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Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.


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