Obama's visit may signify a shift in Arizona politics

January 24, 2012

After Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Obama heads west to five states that will be key to his re-election next year. One of his first stops -- Wednesday afternoon --  will be in the Phoenix area. In 2008, the president largely ignored the home turf of his opponent, John McCain. But as Peter O’Dowd reports, the political winds in this historically conservative state are swirling.

PETER O’DOWD: Call it volatility. Call it turmoil. Or just call it momentum. Whatever it is, President Obama, and a less famous guy named Mike Stauffer, want to build on it.

MIKE STAUFFER: I definitely think I can win. The time is right now.

O’DOWD: Stauffer is an independent running to unseat the most recognizable name in Arizona politics. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who’s  tangled in a civil rights investigation with the Justice Department, is accused of widespread racial profiling. It’s still early, but this year pollsters say Stauffer might have a shot.

O’DOWD: You know, if you win this election, people will say it’s an earthquake.

STAUFFER: Yes. And not if I beat Joe Arpaio. When I beat Joe Arpaio. This will be an earthquake in Arizona.

O’DOWD: Arizona’s political Richter Scale has been working overtime lately. A few months ago, voters recalled Russell Pearce -- the architect of the state’s now-famous immigration law known as SB 1070. There’s been a handful of smaller tremors, including the first Democratic mayor elected in Tucson since 1999. And the election of a young Latino firefighter -- the first Hispanic in his district to win a seat on the Phoenix City Council. I asked pollster Michael O’Neil if there’s a thread that ties the turbulence together.

MICHAEL O’NEIL: You bet there is. We’re in economic turmoil.

O’DOWD: Arizona’s unemployment rate is still near 9 percent. Half of all home mortgages are underwater. O’Neil says the immigration debate, which has a way of flaring in a down economy, still isn’t resolved. Add it up, and Arizona’s 2012 electorate is just agitated. That means both sides are vulnerable.

O’NEIL: The lay of the land this time is not entirely clear. There is massive disaffection with government.

O’DOWD: So, O’Neil says for the first time since 1996, the Democrats may actually have a prayer in Arizona. That’s assuming voters believe that slight gains in the economy are permanent.

NORMA MUNOZ: Good Morning! Everyone is out today. Hi, is this Cassandra?

O’DOWD: People like Norma Munoz are trying to help with the message. Munoz is canvassing a lower-income, minority neighborhood in South Phoenix on the weekend before the president’s arrival. Her local Democratic party and the Obama campaign are working to mobilize this part of the city, and the 800,000 or so Latinos of voting age across the state. Munoz says people are impatient for a better economy.

MUNOZ: They don’t want to stay home and collect food stamps. They want a job. I think this is a motivator. ‘Cause I tell you the Latino vote in this state can do anything, if we get it out.

O’DOWD: That’s a big if. National polls show Latinos are disappointed with the president, and apathetic about the 2012 election. But Munoz believes the political flux in this state favors Obama. In fact, she says the turmoil is downright tasty.

MUNOZ: Mmm....It’s wonderful. It’s like eating a steak sandwich!

O’DOWD: Then again, the feast might be over before the main course ever arrives. At state GOP headquarters, a clock on the wall counts down the days to November’s election.

GOP ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT: Yeah, that’s here at party headquarters, and it goes from 3 to 5:30.

O’DOWD:  In this state, Republicans and a lot of right-leaning Independents still outnumber Democrats. Party Chairman Tom Morrissey says the GOP feels a sense of urgency to win in November, and retake control of the economy.

TOM MORRISSEY: We’ve been awakened to that.

O’DOWD: So the local party is mounting a statewide offensive of its own. Morrissey says it’s unlike anything the GOP has done in years --  a more organized and more coordinated voter-registration campaign ahead of next month’s presidential primary.

MORRISSEY: We have people coming back to the party that haven’t been around, haven’t been active for years. They’re back. I have people walking in here in droves asking ‘what can I do to help.’

O’DOWD: But if the president hopes to trigger an upset in Arizona, overcoming the momentum of an energized Republican vote could be the hardest task of all.

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