Obama Campaign Sees Shift In Arizona Politics

fromKJZZ

President Obama visits Phoenix Wednesday as part of a five-state campaign tour. The campaign thinks it can win Arizona, and that's an unlikely ambition for this conservative state. But Obama might have a chance. Unlikely upsets have dominated Arizona politics lately. The electorate is in flux.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After the State of the Union speech, President Obama is now going west, to five states key to his re-election campaign. One of his first stops is Arizona and what is seen by his campaign as an opportunity. Peter O'Dowd of member station KJZZ reports on Arizona's shifting political landscape.

PETER O'DOWD, BYLINE: Call it volatility, or call it turmoil. Whatever it is, Mike Stauffer sees an opportunity.

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, recently accused of widespread racial profiling by the Justice Department. It's still early, but this year, pollsters say Stauffer may have a shot.

If you beat Arpaio, people will say this is an earthquake.

STAUFFER: Yes. And it's not if, it's when I beat Arpaio. This will be an earthquake in Arizona.

O'DOWD: It wouldn't be the only event registering on the state's political Richter scale lately. A few months ago, voters recalled Russell Pearce, the architect of the state's now-famous immigration law known as SB-10-70. There's been a handful of smaller tremors, including 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. 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: And that's where the Obama campaign sees an opening.

NORMA MUNOZ: Good morning. I know everybody's out today. Hi, is this Cassandra?

O'DOWD: Local volunteer Norma Munoz is canvassing a minority neighborhood in south Phoenix. The Obama campaign wants to mobilize areas like this 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. So I think this is a motivator, because, I tell you, the Latino vote in this state can upset almost 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 instability in Arizona favors Obama. In fact, it's worth savoring.

MUNOZ: Mmm, it's wonderful. It's like eating a steak sandwich.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

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

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, that's here at party headquarters, and it goes from 3 to 5:30.

O'DOWD: In this state, Republicans and right-leaning independents still outnumber Democrats. Party Chairman Tom Morrissey says the GOP feels a sense of urgency.

TOM MORRISSEY: And we've 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 before, 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. They're back. I have people walking in here in numbers, in droves, coming in here, saying: What can I do to help?

O'DOWD: 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.

For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd, in Phoenix.

INSKEEP: You'll hear campaign news throughout this year on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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