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.
“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.
Following his Iowa defeat, Howard Dean canceled all paid media advertising in Arizona. It was a bitter pill to swallow after the former Vermont governor had assiduously worked this state for a solid year, stitching together a network of supporters and volunteers. Kerry, by contrast, had virtually ignored Arizona until his triumph in Iowa.
Dean made two Arizona blitzes over the weekend, clearly attempting to salvage some sort of presentable showing. A remarkably large and enthusiastic crowd of 500 or more heartily cheered Dean when he appeared at an outdoor rally Saturday morning in a Tucson park. “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Howard Dean,” proclaimed a hand-lettered placard in the crowd as Dean bounded onto the stage to rock-star applause.
Speaking the day after the Washington Post published a high-profile story on extensive lobbyist contributions over the years to the Kerry organization, Dean ratcheted up his direct attacks on his Massachusetts rival. Branding Kerry a “handmaiden to special interests” and a “special-interest clone,” Dean repeated his trademark line “that we are not going to beat George Bush with Bush Lite.” In a press interview after the rally, for the first time, he labeled Kerry a “Republican.”
It wasn’t until a full 15 minutes into his still-passionate stump speech that Dean as much as mentioned the war in Iraq, the issue that fueled his meteoric rise through last year and that, until recently, occupied center stage in his campaign. Jobs, health-care and the environment now take priority.
But just as Dean has retooled his approach, reality itself has once again shifted under his feet. The admission by the Bush administration’s top weapons inspector, David Kay, that there are likely no weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq has suddenly re-floated the war as a major issue for Democrats — a bitter irony for the Deaniacs.
Though floundering in the polls, running out of money and busily laying off its paid staffers, the Dean campaign retains a “movement” feel. His Tucson and Phoenix headquarters buzzed with energetic college students. A “Southwest Victory Express” of mostly California-based volunteers methodically canvassed heavily Democratic neighborhoods, two dozen members of the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors Local 1877 showed up to staff bilingual phone banks, and there was even an L.A.-based squad of “Cyclists for Dean” who tirelessly pedaled through targeted precincts trying to turn out the vote.
But the movement nature of the Dean campaign is both its strength and its weakness. Spending time with the Dean campaign and attending its high-energy and stoked-up rallies can create a false illusion of great momentum and support that simply doesn’t exist outside its own perimeter. The cold facts are that most voters — probably 99 percent — never go to a campaign rally or any other sort of political rally for that matter. Some of Dean’s top California strategists came into Arizona to lend a hand and to sniff the atmosphere. For Dean to reasonably compete in the March 2 Left Coast primary (provided he could somehow survive Washington, Michigan and Wisconsin), they agreed he had to emerge this week as the Last Standing Man — the only alternative to Kerry. That hope seemed to evaporate Tuesday night, with Dean finishing no higher than third place in all seven primaries and caucuses. The Deaniacs are soon going to have to decide in whose competing campaign they will invest their hopes and passions.
Former General Wesley Clark, meanwhile, poured sizable resources into Arizona and outpolled Dean 2-to-1, yet still finished 16 points behind Kerry. Watching him on the stump in a suburban Tucson tourist restaurant, I frankly have difficulty imagining how the former NATO Supreme Commander engenders much if any popular support. (But then again, you can reasonably ask the same question about the dour John Kerry).
Clark entered the race as a clumsy campaigner and, months later, he remains a clumsy campaigner. His awkwardly delivered stump speech lacks coherence and theme and seems an uneven pastiche of official Democratic bromides. Clark aimed his appeal to Arizona’s seniors and veterans as he stressed his values of “patriotism, faith, family and inclusion.”
Clark ploddingly stumbled through each of the four values, introducing each one with the same catch phrase of “Here’s what we’re gonna do.” But each tease was followed by a marked lack of programmatic detail that faded into platitude. There was one curious note to Clark’s speech. Unlike any other of the primary candidates, and obviously reacting to charges that only recently he may have been an admirer of Republicans, Clark went out of his way — by my count four times in 15 minutes — to praise the Democratic Party by name. “The fortunate should help the fortunate,” Clark said, summing up what might be the entirety of his domestic program. “And only one party does that in America. The Democratic Party.”
Clark’s second-place showing here and in neighboring New Mexico as well as his razor-edge victory in Oklahoma, nevertheless reflects a certain resonance that the former general has among Latinos, veterans, seniors and more socially conservative Democrats. His rallies are punctuated with the universal Army cheer of “Hooah!” and his appeal to so-called NASCAR Dads is undeniable. “When Bush speaks he has an air of arrogance. But General Clark is one of us — a guy you can watch the Super Bowl with,” said 42-year-old Edward Emerine, a postal worker who showed up at Clark’s Tucson rally with his young daughter in tow. “He’s a good combination of a Democrat and a Republican.”
As Tuesday night’s results trickled in, a couple of hundred elated Kerry supporters and campaigners gathered in the firefighters social hall on the northern edge of Phoenix. Campaign boss Mario Diaz sat quietly making notes on a yellow pad. When the TV monitors flashed live to Kerry making the evening’s victory speech from a campaign stop in Seattle, the jubilant local crowd broke into chants of “Bring It On! Bring It On! Bring It On!”
It, no doubt, will be here soon enough.