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Desert Solitaire

On the weekend before the election, in Arizona, where I’d gone to canvass in the contest’s waning days, I learned the meaning of battleground state. The Democratic office in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale had been pelted with eggs on Halloween night; earlier in the week a volunteer at a “visibility event” in Tucson had been run down by a driver in an SUV; and a Democratic campaign worker from New York whose car proudly bore Kerry-Edwards bumper stickers woke to find her tires had gone flat. Even the Web site the Arizona Democrats used to download their canvassing maps had mysteriously gone dead. If local campaign workers had little actual evidence of Republican wrongdoing — the hit-and-run could have been an accident, Web sites crash and tires go flat without human intervention — it made little difference: Battlegrounds are where you feel embattled, not necessarily where you’re waging war. “That kind of stuff doesn’t happen in Texas,” said David Lelsz, office director at the Phoenix Democratic headquarters. “In Texas, they don’t fear us.”

In Arizona, fear was everywhere. In a poor neighborhood on the east side of Glendale, residents of a broken-window apartment block whispered their intent to vote for Kerry, worrying they’d be overheard by a neighbor who would somehow punish them for their choice. “There are cameras everywhere,” a Latina native of East L.A. told me after delivering a fluid spiel on the folly of U.S. immigration policy. “I worry all the time that somebody will hear me and shut me down.” On Sunday night, my canvassing partner and I knocked on a splendidly decorated adobe mansion in Scottsdale, asked for the presumed Democrat on our “low-efficacy voter” list and met instead a swaggering he-man who demanded, with fists clenched, to know why we hadn’t read “the book.” “Which book?” we wondered. Unfit for Command, of course.

Despite internal Democratic polls that said Kerry was behind a mere four points, Arizona had long seemed so solidly in the Bush camp that the Democrats had moved staff out to Nevada, where the candidates were separated in the polls by a gossamer thread. The billionaire-funded grassroots group America Coming Together had determined Arizona had no momentum left in its swing; the Kerry campaign canceled its October television ads when it became clear Bush’s lead would hold. But none of that was reason for a few unsinkable souls to cease carting busloads of volunteers from California with the promise of free housing and hope. I traveled with the Kerry SoCal Grassroots Campaign, which had raised enough money to send some 40 Angelenos on a bus for free. I began the trip believing our efforts would be noble but futile; by the time we pulled up at the headquarters on Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix, I had been persuaded that we could, as our stickers promised, turn Arizona blue.

 

In the Grand Canyon State, local offices are no longer decided in the general elections but in the primaries, where conservative Republicans face off against moderate Republicans; establishment liberals in the state identify deeply with Republican Senator John McCain, who skated past his challenger, an eighth-grade schoolteacher, to his fourth term on Tuesday. (“He’d be a Democrat,” one woman who had opened her house to volunteers told me, “if he didn’t know it would cost him his Senate seat.”) And there was more for Democrats to worry about at the polls than 10 electoral votes for Kerry, including a ballot measure funded by the Federation for Immigration Reform that would require residents to prove their citizenship before availing themselves of public services, and a bitter contest for a House seat between incumbent Rick Renzi and Democrat Paul Babbitt. The ballot measure, Proposition 200, cleared by 11 points despite (or perhaps because of) the state’s exploding Latino population, and Babbitt, the environment-minded brother of Clinton’s secretary of the interior and former Arizona governor Bruce, lost decisively, despite Arizonans’ expressed preoccupation with water conservation and city smog. This is a state turned inside out against itself.

But there was reason to hope: The state’s governor, Janet Napolitano, had won her race against Republican Matt Salmon two years ago after trailing in the polls for months, and she still believed Arizona would turn for Kerry. “If I listened to polls,” she told the press, “I never would have run at all.” On election-night eve, I sat in the Central Avenue headquarters talking to Mark Manoil, the Democratic candidate for one of the available seats on Arizona’s Corporate Commission and a staunch alternative-energy advocate. The local television station was broadcasting from the local Republican headquarters, and its phone banks were unmanned. “I think,” said Manoil, “they misunderestimated us.” Later, I sat up late with two other California women and one man at the house of a local writer where we all stayed, drinking screwdrivers and watching Ted Koppel compare Kerry’s election-eve crowds to those of that archetypal Arizonan Barry Goldwater. At the time, it seemed funny.

Arizona did not turn blue, of course, although a few counties went solidly for Kerry — Santa Cruz, for instance, a tiny square on the Mexican border, and Coconino, the home of the Navajo and Paiute Indian reservations so critical in Napolitano’s victory. But as the sun set on Phoenix Tuesday afternoon, it didn’t seem to matter. We were on the street in South Glendale persuading a final few potential Democrats to find their way to the polls when we heard the first hint of the now infamous Zogby exit poll from Aaron Jahneke, a Democratic state House candidate with only a slightly better shot at the seat in his mostly Republican district than Ralph Nader had at the presidency four years ago. The friend I was walking the precinct with had just called on a woman who had been praying to God for a sign to decide her vote for president, and believed she had heard God’s word in his visit. Promising to vote for Kerry, she left the house as he walked away.