Obama Camp, Seeing Shift, Bets on Long Shot in Arizona

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PHOENIX -- President Obama's re-election campaign is dispatching workers across Arizona's college campuses and Latino neighborhoods this spring, registering as many new voters as they can in an organized, three-month effort to determine whether they can put this unlikely state into play for Democrats this November.

By any measure the obstacles are considerable: Arizona has voted for precisely one Democratic president since Truman was in the White House. Yet Mr. Obama's aides said in interviews that they thought it was possible they could move the needle of history by winning in 2012 a state that analysts believe is heading Democratic in national elections, but may not be there yet.

Obama strategists are simply following the same techniques they used in 2008 when putting states like North Carolina and Indiana into play. Then, too, there was much initial skepticism, though both states ended up going for Mr. Obama.

Yet for all those signs of organizing activity -- and the fact that demographic and political changes across the West have made this region increasingly tempting ground for Democrats --Mr. Obama's campaign strategists are not yet convinced he can win the state this November. Mr. Obama's aides said they closely monitored the organizing here and would assess the result of their work over the next few months to see whether it made sense to pour money and resources into Arizona this fall.

Should they succeed, they may well expand the playing map, no minor accomplishment, as some states that Mr. Obama won last time now seem at risk, including North Carolina and Indiana. Perhaps more significant, it would be powerful evidence of the political and demographic changes that seem to be moving slowly across Arizona, as it catches up with the rest of the West, where several states have been trending Democratic.

This is in no small part because of the increase in Latino populations and a series of legislative efforts aimed at immigration -- with the Republican governor and state Legislature of Arizona leading the way -- that polls suggest have created a backlash among many Latino voters.

"It is going to be a swing state," said Jim Messina, the president's campaign manager. "The question is, whether we can get enough people registered to put it in play this year."

"If you just close your eyes and look at the census numbers, look at the number of unregistered voters, look at how this is the only state in the country that didn't have a primary or a contested general in 2008, so there was no organizing," Mr. Messina said as he ticked off the factors that work in their favor. "And look next door. Look at New Mexico, look at Colorado, look at California. All that stuff is going to come to Arizona. The question is, can we get it there in time? How expensive is it do it?"

It certainly will not be easy, as even Democrats here are quick to say. Bill Clinton is the only Democratic presidential candidate who has won Arizona state since Truman. Republicans enjoy an edge in party registration here; Democrats have lost some ground since 2008 and now trail, if slightly, Republican and independent voters.

Arizona is the home of Barry Goldwater, the godfather of the modern conservative movement. The Tea Party here is strong, and it helped to elect an overwhelmingly conservative state Legislature. It has a Republican governor and two Republican senators. The state has a significant population of Mormon voters, which could prove to the benefit to the likely Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon.

"The Obama campaign thinks they are going to turn Arizona blue, but that's simply not going to happen," said Shane Wikfors, the communications director of the Arizona Republican Party. "If they want to spend money here in Arizona, good, let them. It will take money away from other places where they could spend money."

Of course, whatever political or demographic shifts may be going on over the long term, the Obama campaign right now could be trying to do little more than fake Republicans into wasting time and money here, though members of both parties here said that did not appear to be the case.

Evidence of this effort can be seen in communities across the state. A clipboard in her hand and an Obama 2012 button on her shirt, Jessica Ehinger walked along the commons at Phoenix College on a hot Thursday morning, calling out to students heading for class. "Are you registered to vote?" she asked. She is one of a handful of volunteers who are making trips to this campus every Thursday -- morning and afternoon.

Obama volunteers are making weekly registration trips to campuses across the state, as well as to supermarkets, libraries and community centers in Latino neighborhoods in Phoenix, Glendale, Guadalupe, Yuma, Mesa and Tucson. There are now four campaign offices in the state and a fifth is about to open in Glendale. Paid Obama staff members moved here nearly a year ago.

It is not hard to understand why the Obama campaign, which has a history of challenging established political wisdom, might be tempted to throw some resources here.

College students in Arizona are legally entitled to residency, and thus are able to vote, after living here for 30 days. The Latino population has nearly doubled over the past 10 years -- it now makes up 30 percent of the overall population, and about 19 percent of the voting age population -- though Democrats have long been frustrated over their lack of success at registering Latino voters and getting them to the polls. The announcement by Richard Carmona, a former United States surgeon general, who is Latino, that he would run as a Democrat for an open Senate seat here has stirred hopes that his presence could pump up Latino participation this fall.

"The Latino community is not going to come on its own," said Ruben Gallego, a Democratic state representative from Phoenix. He praised what he described as the far-reaching efforts of the Obama campaign with Latino voters, saying, "You have got to get the right people to run the campaigns to get them to turn out."

Mr. Obama lost to John McCain in 2008 by nine points, a not particularly large number, considering that Mr. McCain is from Arizona. Mr. McCain drew 41 percent of the Latino vote, a number that even Republicans here say the party's presidential candidate is unlikely to match.

"Obama might have won Arizona in '08, if it wasn't for the favorite son, McCain," said Patrick J. Kenney, director of the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University. "I'm just saying that it could be in play. Obama didn't compete here in '08 and John Kerry didn't compete here in '04. So we don't really have a good model of anything really competitive."

Bruce Merrill, an Arizona pollster and political analyst, said he continued to think this was an uphill fight for the Obama campaign, but far from impossible.

"The Obama people think it's in play: I still think it's a long shot," he said. "But the emerging Carmona candidacy has some potential to mobilize Hispanics more than they have been in the past. The higher the turnout, the more it helps Democrats, particularly in Arizona.

"The Democratic Party is better organized this year," he said. "The party organization and structure here appears to have been significantly upgraded."

A critical obstacle for Mr. Obama is the economy, which continues to struggle here, and which Republicans argue will hurt him with all groups of voters. "The fact that Arizona is suffering through with a tough economy, that's not boding well with independent voters," Mr. Wikfors said.

The unemployment rate in February was 8.7 percent. That is higher than the 7.6 percent rate in November 2008, but 2 percentage points down from when it broke double-digits in 2010.

The volunteers already turning out for Mr. Obama seem serious. They gathered the other morning in a mostly empty office in central Phoenix for an organizing session and watched a video feature on the woman who provided Mr. Obama the "fired up, ready to go chant" on the Obama for President Web Site.

"So are you fired up?" Ms. Ehinger inquired as the group headed out to Phoenix College.

Mr. Messina said he would make a final decision about Arizona by summer. "I have no rose-colored glasses on," he said. "I understand how difficult this is. The last time, people said there was no way we could do North Carolina and Virginia. And here we are."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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