Can Kerry win here without McCain?

PHOENIX—Max Fose has offered me a ride in his maroon Hummer H2 so he can prove that John Kerry doesn’t have a presidential campaign in Arizona. The GOP consultant cruises down Phoenix’s Central Avenue, past the Central High kids chatting on cell phones, and parks behind a ratty one-story building: Kerry’s local field office. “I drive by it every day,” says Fose, who once worked for Sen. John McCain, “but I never see anyone in there.” The back door is unlocked, so I push it open and walk inside. The office lacks much in the way of interior lighting. There’s a single volunteer: a woman with a nicotine wheeze quizzing some poor wretch on the other end of the phone. “Are you a veteran? … Do you speak Spanish? … Would you like to host a Kerry coffee?”

Republicans delight in mocking the shabbiness of Kerry’s Arizona campaign. “They have a problem telling reporters how many staffers they have in the state,” says a GOP aide. “They have a problem coming up with a solid number they can live with.” When I put the question to Kerry’s Arizona spokeswoman, Sue Walitsky, she claims a “few dozen” staffers—but won’t reveal their names or locations. “We like to keep them guessing,” says Walitsky, and, boy, she isn’t kidding. For weeks, no one at Democratic Party headquarters seemed to know when Kerry’s state director, Douglas Wilson, would move to Arizona full time. He finally arrived in August—three months before the election.

Kerry-Edwards is a shadow campaign in Arizona. No Democrat can make a convincing case that Kerry is using the state as anything more than a head-fake—a feint to gull Bush into wasting time and money here. Kerry scaled back his Arizona TV ads before the convention, funneling the money into tighter races in other states. Despite Kerry’s recent tour of the Grand Canyon, state Democrats are hoping for one more visit from the candidate, tops. An Aug. 24 KAET-TV poll has Kerry down eight points, but even liberal operatives concede Arizona probably isn’t that tight. “Is it a swing state like Ohio and Missouri?” says Michael Frias, the state director of America Coming Together. “No, I think anybody that suggests Arizona is in the Tier One of swing states is a little hopeful.”

For starters, Arizona Democrats have a historical problem. Only one Democratic presidential candidate has won the state since Harry Truman: Bill Clinton, who in 1996 edged Bob Dole by three points. (“I think that says more about the Dole campaign than it does the Clinton campaign,” says Rep. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Mesa.) Two years ago, Democrat Janet Napolitano won the governorship by less than 12,000 votes. And that’s pretty much it for the Democratic triumphs. Al Gore ignored Arizona in 2000 and lost by six points. The GOP controls both U.S. Senate seats, both chambers of the Statehouse, and six of eight seats in the congressional delegation.

The peculiar notion that Kerry can win here is based on what Kerry state director Douglas Wilson calls the “purpling of Arizona”—the idea that enough Democrats will find their way into the electorate to overcome the GOP’s six-point registration advantage and nudge the state from red to blue. Those prospective Democrats include the state’s booming Latino population, as well as blue-state refugees pouring into hip, liberal enclaves like Flagstaff and Sedona. Even with those voters for him, Kerry would still need to siphon off a huge number of Arizona’s McCainiac independents to win the state.

Is that possible? Let’s start with Latino voters in the precincts of southern Arizona.

Kerry’s man in Tucson is Raúl Grijalva, a plump, mustachioed congressman who delivered one of John Edwards’ nominating speeches in Boston. You can find Grijalva’s office in one of Tucson’s stucco strip malls, right next door to a pawn shop. Grijalva’s office contains a pair of gently used leather couches. “These are Mo Udall’s old couches!” he says. “It’s good karma!”

Grijalva sprawls on one of the sofas, wearing an untucked black polo shirt, khaki slacks, and mahogany cowboy boots. (There’s a funny story about Grijalva’s shaggy appearance.) He has worry lines that run north-south on his forehead—lines that become ravines when Grijalva talks about the upcoming election. “There’s a lot of pressure on all of us in southern Arizona,” he says with a sigh. Arizona is one of the beachheads of the “emerging Latino majority”—the behemoth one hears so much about but which never seems to flex its political muscle during an election. A July 22 Washington Post poll showed Latino voters souring on Bush because of the Iraq war and the economy. Analysts say the president’s Latino support has stalled at about 35 percent nationwide—the same number he tallied in 2000.

The problem is, Kerry needs a lot more than 65 percent of Latinos to carry Arizona. Antonio Gonzalez of the William C. Velasquez Institute estimates that Kerry needs 70 percent to 75 percent of the Latino vote and high turnout to win the state. Since Latinos seem to have warmed to Kerry at the same glacial rate as the rest of the country, I asked Rep. Grijalva why they would turn out for him in record numbers in November. He ticked off the familiar list of gripes with Bush’s first term: immigration reform, war, the economy. No, no, I said, why would Latinos turn out for Kerry? He paused for a few seconds. Then he replied, “While the promotion of Kerry will go on in southern Arizona, the theme of our campaign is, ‘Let’s get Raúl another two years. And let’s beat Bush.’ “

The politician who excites Arizona Democrats more than any of their own is John McCain, who seemed to entertain, at least for a split second, the sub rosaoffers from the Democrats to switch sides. McCain’s heretical split from Bush and the national GOP can be seen in microcosm in Arizona. The state elects, on the one hand, demonic right-wingers like Sen. Jon Kyl and Rep. J.D. Hayworth; and on the other, gonzo centrists like McCain and Rep. Jim Kolbe, the only openly gay Republican in the House, who relish their skirmishes with the wingers.

Outside of his iconoclasm, McCain’s importance in Arizona lies in his pull with the state’s huge pool of independents. About 25 percent of the Arizona electorate describes itself as independent, and most are thought to share McCain’s political hard-wiring: conservative, but distrustful of blind loyalty to party. The Democratic dream scenario goes like this: If McCain has a public tiff with George W. Bush and the GOP—over the 2000 election, Swift boat ads, whatever—Arizona’s independent voters might follow their Obi-Wan Kenobi figure and jump to John Kerry.

Just the opposite has happened, of course. McCain reportedly declined the Kerry camp’s entreaties to join the ticket as vice president. He headlined Bush’s Aug. 11 rally in Phoenix, which drew 15,000 screaming Republicans, and will speak in prime time at the Republican Convention. McCain can goose the Bush campaign all he wants, but without his explicit endorsement of Kerry, it’s hard to see what issue would flip Arizona independents—who tend to be more conservative than independents in, say, Florida.

So to win Arizona, John Kerry needs an unprecedented showing among Latino voters, who remain unenthused about him, and a huge slice of independents, whose champion is pointing the other way. One bit of good news for Democrats is that they managed to knock Ralph Nader off the ballot, arguing that some of his signatures had been collected by convicted felons. And then there’s Douglas Wilson, Kerry’s newly arrived state director, who engineered Bill Clinton’s miracle victory here in 1996. “I understand people look at ‘96 and say, ‘This was a good thing,’ ” says Wilson. “I’m not some savior, for God’s sake.” Too bad. For Kerry to win Arizona, it’s gonna take a miracle.