McCain is feeling the heat in Arizona

Miller is a Times staff writer.

John McCain has easily won every political race he has run in Arizona, so it is not surprising that Republicans and Democrats alike assumed the senator would hold his own state in the presidential contest.

But that was before the economy tanked and foreclosure signs sprouted like saguaro in the desert. It was before the registration of Democrats and independents outpaced Republicans; before presidential polls showed a shrinking, single-digit advantage for McCain over Barack Obama, his Democratic rival.

Suddenly, both sides are throwing resources at Arizona. Voters began receiving automated phone calls this week from the Republican camp warning that Obama’s election would invite a “major international crisis he will be unprepared to handle,” and that Democrats in full control of government would “give civil rights to terrorists.”


On Friday, the Obama campaign announced it would run an upbeat spot in the last four days of the race touting the Illinois senator’s endorsements by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and economic giant Warren Buffett. Move will run its own ads showing McCain struggling to hold on to his state.

Arizona’s crimson has turned purple on several electoral maps, and some political analysts have moved it from the McCain column to “leaning McCain.” Some polls suggest the state is up for grabs.

“It’s a lot closer than we’d like it to be,” said Mike Hellon, co-chairman of McCain’s Arizona campaign, who nonetheless predicted that “John McCain is going to carry Arizona.”

The McCain campaign, confident it would win Arizona, used its phone banks to call voters in hotly contested Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, and sent busloads of volunteers there. Wes Gullett, another top McCain campaign official, said the state diverted $10 million for use in more competitive states.

“I think we’ll be fine. I wouldn’t want them to spend here; they have bigger fish to fry,” Gullet said. “People in Arizona know John McCain.”

Obama hasn’t campaigned in Arizona since the primaries, though he and other leading Democrats have made many stops in neighboring states.


David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, said Democratic turnout in early voting suggested his candidate was doing well, particularly among Latino voters and in the suburbs of Phoenix.

It is “a very, very close race,” Plouffe told reporters in a conference call.

Despite its reputation as conservative Barry Goldwater country, Arizona’s politics are nuanced, often driven more by issues and personalities than parties.

The state voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 and for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Many people support Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, and McCain. Arizona’s other senator, Republican Jon Kyl, is among the most conservative members of Congress.

Many political observers expect Democrats to win another congressional seat in this election and, therefore, claim a majority of the state’s delegation.

The new ads are targeting the more than 800,000 registered independents and other swing voters in Arizona, many of whom are recent arrivals from California and elsewhere, changing the character of the population.

One of those is Kelly Tate, 33, a nurse who moved to Phoenix from Oklahoma three years ago for higher wages. She said she would most likely vote Democratic.


“I just trust Obama more,” Tate said, waiting outside a Costco on a recent afternoon. “Obviously, the economy is a huge reason.”

Her friends Kassie and Lamar Peterson, both 49, emerged from the store to say they would be working at the polls for Obama on election day. African Americans from Oakland, they moved to Phoenix in 2002 for Lamar’s job as a corrections officer.

“This is history-making. We never thought we’d see a black presidential hopeful in our lifetime,” Kassie said.

A few feet away, however, lifelong Democrat Laura Archer, 84, said she would not be casting a ballot for Obama, “and it’s not because he’s black or because he’s young. He just looks like all shine and no business, and he’s got too much money to throw around. And I’ve listened pretty closely.”

Both campaigns have relied on volunteers to get the word out about their candidates and encourage early voters to the polls. They’ll be doing the same on election day.

McCain’s carpeted headquarters in an office building is decorated with cardboard cutouts of the candidate, a flat-screen television broadcasting Fox News and placards boasting “Lawyers for McCain,” “Moms Love Mac” and “Sportsmen for Mac.” A couple dozen people work the phones.


“Super, super, we really appreciate it,” a volunteer said into the phone. “God bless you, and you have a great day.”

“I’m passionate about this race and about John McCain,” said Kim Sabow, 40, a stay-at-home mother of three. “With the economic situation and national security, I feel we are at a pivotal time in history. I support his position of less government, lower taxes and a big emphasis on national security.”

Across town in a bungalow with hardwood floors, the Obama campaign is more chaotic. Campaign workers sit around tables making signs with colored markers and poster board, or in the front yard making cellphone calls to urge people to volunteer on election day. Sign-up sheets are pinned to the wall.

John Fellows, 52, an Air Force veteran of several wars and a onetime Republican, has taken leave from his gem business to volunteer full time for the Obama campaign.

“I vote for the individual, not the party,” said Fellows, who argued that McCain had not been good on support for veterans. “Obama was the No. 1 graduate of the No. 1 law school, and we need someone smart. Also, he’s really the only self-made man in the race. Initially, I supported [Joe] Biden in the primaries, so once Obama selected him as a running mate, it was a match made in heaven for me.”

McCain often has enjoyed crossover support from Democrats, but many say he is not the same candidate who ran in 2000, and has moved too far right in appealing to the hard-line Republican base. They also complain that his steadfast opposition to “earmarks,” or pork barrel spending attached to big bills in Congress, means that he hasn’t directed much money back home.


“Arizona is the fifth or sixth worst state for getting back federal dollars for the taxes we pay,” said Rick DeGraw, a Democratic Party activist. “Earmarks are part of the process, and we don’t get our fair share.”

“Everything we take to him, he says, ‘I don’t believe in earmarks,’ ” said Mary Rose Garrido Wilcox, the only Democrat on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. “We need highways and assistance to provide housing to seniors, and Head Start is losing funds. Some earmarks do good.”

Immigration is another issue that appears to be hurting McCain. The state has approved sanctions on businesses that hire undocumented workers, and law enforcement agencies have begun cracking down on illegal immigrants. Among Latinos, in particular, McCain is seen to have backed away from the immigration reforms he once sponsored in favor of emphasizing border security.

Such concerns -- along with fallout from the economic downturn -- helped pare McCain’s lead from about 16 percentage points in mid-September to about 5 percentage points, according to an average of recent polls.

Gullett, the McCain campaign official, said it was normal for the gap to narrow as election day neared, particularly in a state that was growing and maturing.

“Arizona is not dissimilar from the rest of the country. Things get closer at the end,” Gullet said. “And as we get bigger, we get more even. The population homogenizes.”



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