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Bring It on Out West 

With Kerry, GOP no longer owns Arizona

Thursday, Feb 5 2004
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Photo by Marc Cooper

PHOENIX — Two days before John Kerry’s impressive double-digit victory in Tuesday’s primary, Antonio Villaraigosa, a national co-chair of the campaign, wrapped his arms around a trumpet-toting mariachi in this city’s legendary Pancho’s restaurant and gleefully belted out the lyrics to the old cantina standard “El Rey” — The King.

The L.A. city councilman and former mayoral candidate had good reason to celebrate. “I endorsed Kerry early on, back in July,” Villaraigosa said, laughing as he sat down with former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros and plowed into a lunch of chorizo and eggs. “No sooner do I endorse and, shit, the very next day Kerry begins crashing in the polls. Man, it felt like I was the kiss of death or something. But not anymore.”

No kidding. Villaraigosa and Cisneros merrily surfed on the Kerry momentum that ripped this past week through Arizona like a flash flood over the parched desert floor. The rising tide coming out of Kerry’s victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, accompanied by endorsements from the state Democratic establishment, buried all his rivals in this — the second biggest state in delegate count in this week’s primaries — and lapped right up against the border of one of the biggest prizes of all, voter-rich California.

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“Until Iowa happened, there was no real fire in our campaign,” says Mario Diaz, the 36-year-old campaign consultant who engineered Kerry’s victory. “Iowa lit the spark.”

Indeed, only three weeks ago Kerry was running at no more than 5 percent in the polls, Clark was a possible statewide front-runner (as was Dean) and the largest Phoenix newspaper, the Arizona Republic, was backing the now-mothballed Joe Lieberman (who finished here with 6.5 percent, right behind John Edwards, who ran no Arizona campaign at all).

Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, there was little face-to-face politicking here, though Kerry, Clark and Dean dive-bombed in and out of the state frenetically in the past handful of days in last-minute attempts to woo support.

Media-driven opinion rather than an elaborate ground organization quickly galvanized Kerry’s appeal and helped assemble, almost overnight, a formidable classic Democratic coalition: seniors, Latinos (who make up 25 percent of the population), unionized firefighters and vets, vets and more vets. There are nearly 600,000 veterans in this state and Kerry continues to successfully mine this new vein of support. He now regularly dedicates a good portion of his stump speech to vets, and lavishly thanks the “band of brothers” standing by him. When Kerry inevitably mouths his three-word challenge to Bush to “Bring It On!,” the vets can be counted on to wildly cheer and hoot. When a so-called “Kerry-Van” of 100 supporters rolled into Phoenix from Southern California on Saturday, the first detachment of volunteers to present itself to the waiting TV cameras was a half-dozen ex-G.I.s fully suited up in jungle cammies and shined boots. “John Kerry is the first candidate in my lifetime who pays attention to us,” said one of the former soldiers, a middle-aged African-American who had come out from Baldwin Hills. “We’re here to fight for him like this was war.”

Though Howard Dean had secured the endorsement of U.S. Congressman Raul Grijalva, Kerry bit even deeper into the growing Latino political community, taking twice as much of its vote as the former Vermont governor. Representative Ed Pastor, who had originally supported Dick Gephardt, came on board the Kerry campaign. The United Farm Workers threw its support to him in the final week (though UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta still backs Dean). Having Diaz as his campaign manager shored up Kerry’s Latino support. Meanwhile, Cisneros, one of the Southwest’s most popular Latino politicians, came out to knock on doors for Kerry. And Villaraigosa sent seven of his staffers to work in Phoenix, including his office chief, Jimmie Blackman.

The winning message of the Kerry campaign in Arizona, increasingly honed since his upset victory in Iowa, was his putative “electability,” his ability to compete with Bush on military and national security issues. Or as one of his spokespersons, Laura Capps (daughter of Santa Barbara Congresswoman Lois Capps), spins it: “He has the best handle on foreign policy; he will govern with a steady hand, not a clenched fist.”

Never before in the state’s history have Democratic primary campaigns so strenuously fought for the loyalty of Arizona voters. More than being what the media have dubbed “the first test in the West,” Arizona — once a rock-hard “red” Republican redoubt — is acquiring an increasingly blue-ish ‰ Democratic tinge. Not just the growing Latino population but also an influx of domestic refugees from the rest of America’s suburbs is moderating Arizona politics. While the state went for Bush in 2000 and GOP registration still has the edge, the governor and the mayor of Phoenix are now Democrats. Arizona is also one of two states in America where voters approved comprehensive public-financed campaign measures. “Arizona this November will be in real play. No way that Bush can take it for granted,” says Kerry campaign chief Diaz, who also ran the successful 2002 gubernatorial campaign for Democrat Janet Napolitano.

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