MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. For the first time in nearly a generation, voters in Arizona will elect a new senator. Republican Jon Kyl is retiring, after 18 years. And a lot of people expected another Republican, Congressman Jeff Flake, to win the seat easily. Instead, he finds himself in a tight competition with Democrat Richard Carmona. As we hear from NPR's Ted Robbins, the race has become heated - and on the airwaves, nasty.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Republican Jeff Flake.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Many call him the most conservative congressman in Washington.

ROBBINS: Waking before dawn - in this ad - to go run, eat breakfast with his family, and drive to work. From a pioneering Arizona Mormon family; endorsed by National Right to Life and the NRA.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Arizona's battle-tested conservative is Jeff Flake.

ROBBINS: If you're into battle-tested, though, Democrat Rich Carmona's resume is hard to beat: born in Harlem, of Puerto Rican descent.

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UNIDENTIFIED CARMONA SUPPORTER: Rich was a poor kid who quit school, and got a second chance in the Army.

ROBBINS: And as one of Carmona's Vietnam-era colleagues says in this ad, he made the most of it.

UNIDENTIFIED CARMONA SUPPORTER: ...became a doctor, a SWAT team leader and surgeon general.

ROBBINS: Jeff Flake and the Republican Party have been tying Rich Carmona to the Obama administration - not necessarily a helpful connection, in a state Mitt Romney is expected to win.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Richard Carmona was recruited by Barack Obama. Jeff Flake is supported by Jon Kyl and John McCain.

ROBBINS: Carmona, though, served as surgeon general under George W. Bush. Until a year or so ago, he was a registered independent. And in the past, he says Republicans also tried to recruit him for office.

RICH CARMONA: In an old Republican Party, I might have been able to go with a fiscal conservative approach, and smaller government. I'm OK with that. But when you look at what's happened in our state, and the nation, and where the Republican Party has gone; most of my friends who are moderate Republicans, are embarrassed that we're attempting to legislate contraception, defunding Planned Parenthood.

ROBBINS: Carmona is playing the moderate to Jeff Flake's conservative. Sensing a possible upset, the Democratic Party has spent at least $1 million on ads portraying Flake as too conservative, even for Arizona. They've attacked Flake's positions on abortion and contraception, and highlighted a few of his votes on veterans. Flake says the attacks are exaggerated and misleading.

REP. JEFF FLAKE: Some of the accusations about me and veterans' benefits and women's issues, and things like that - I think at one point, they were saying that Jeff Flake wants to return to the time before women could vote; something like that. That gets personal. I'm sorry.

ROBBINS: Last week, conflicting polls showed each candidate slightly ahead. The already tough campaign got really personal. Flake and the Republican Party released an ad aimed at women, attacking Carmona's temperament. Former Bush Health and Human Services official Cristina Beato looks into the camera, and says Carmona has problems with women, and with anger.

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CRISTINA BEATO: There was an angry pounding on the door, in the middle of the night. I'm a single mom. I feared for my kids, and for myself. It was Richard Carmona - and I was his boss. Carmona is not who he seems.

ROBBINS: Carmona denied the charges. He called Beato troubled herself; and he countered with an ad featuring his former sheriff's SWAT team captain, Kathleen Brennan, saying Carmona was, quote, "a joy to work with."

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KATHLEEN BRENNAN: So when I see a career politician like Jeff Flake, attacking Rich Carmona, who has spent his life helping others, it's despicable. Congressman Flake should be ashamed.

ROBBINS: Carmona didn't help himself in the debate last night, when he told the male moderator that the moderator was prettier than CNN's Candy Crowley. Republicans pounced. Carmona apologized. No telling what the effects will be. Early voting has already begun, in Arizona.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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