PHOENIX - Marshall Shore showed up at a local recreation center in a gang-infested, poverty-stricken neighborhood here Wednesday night looking for something, though he wasn t exactly sure what.
Not knowing what electibility looked like, he felt sure he would know it when he saw it. That evening, he would watch Wesley Clark deliver his stump speech, weighing the man s words, his manner, and his passion.
The once-strong supporter of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean had one political thought on his mind - to remove President Bush from office. Convinced after Mr. Dean s Iowa meltdown and second-place showing in New Hampshire that his political weaknesses would make it hard for him to unseat the President, Mr. Shore was shopping for a new candidate.
“The goal is, we ve got to win. We ve got to get Bush out of office, he said.
He wasn t alone. His sentiments reflect what has shown up in public opinion polls in states across the nation as Mr. Dean slowly sinks behind Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the winner in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and others. Those polls show Democrats considering a candidate s ability to defeat Mr. Bush a major factor when deciding whom to support.
Here in Arizona, one of seven states with primaries or caucuses tomorrow, the race may be the most competitive, said Paul Hegarty, executive director of the state Democratic Party.
“Arizona is wide open, Mr. Hegarty said. “It s not anyone s home territory. There is no favorite son. Everyone is on a level footing. And it s important to do well here because Arizona is one of those new emerging states that used to be Republican but is now a swing state. This is the first primary state that looks like America. This is a perfect training ground for the November election.
Candidates seem to realize that, he said. “They have been coming out here for a year-and-a-half. All the major candidates have full-time paid staff here.
Still, voters here are up in the air, Mr. Hegarty said. The Iowa and New Hampshire votes may have done more to leave Arizonans unsettled than to help them make a decision. “The polls I have seen show that somewhere between one-third to one-half have yet to make up their mind, he said.
The latest poll by Zogby International of Utica, N.Y., shows Mr. Kerry with a lead. Until last week, the leaders had been Mr. Clark and Mr. Dean.
This state represents the western outpost in the race for the nomination. The primary election here will be the first in this region and may allow a peek into how western voters are sizing up the race.
There are 55 pledged Arizona delegates on the line, the second largest state up for grabs tomorrow. Only Missouri, with 74 delegates, has more. The successful Democratic presidential nominee must collect 2,162 delegates.
The candidates are competing for the hearts and minds of a diverse Arizona population. More than a third are minorities, most of them Hispanic. While it has a large population of senior citizens during the winter months, many of them are residents of other states and do not vote here. Arizona has a senior population of 13 percent, compared to 12 percent nationally, according to the Almanac of American Politics.
The state thrives on tourism and the high-tech industry, both of which have suffered during the recession. But now both sectors are enjoying a recovery. Six in 10 workers have white-collar jobs, while 20 percent have blue-collar occupations, according to the almanac.
George W. Bush won here by 6 percent in the 2000 presidential election, but it was won by Bill Clinton in 1996. All statewide officeholders are Republicans except for Gov. Janet Napolitano, the former state attorney general, who is a Democrat. She won the office two years ago in a tight three-way race. Still, the political legacy of conservative Barry Goldwater, a longtime senator from Arizona who was the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, lives on.
The congressional delegation includes six Republicans and two Democrats. Both U.S. senators are Republicans. Both houses of the state legislature are controlled by Republicans.
The state is gaining in population and in national political power. It gained two congressional seats after the last census, and has gained six seats since 1942.
The growing population has put a strain on precious natural resources here, especially water.
Sue Williams, a member of Democrats of the Red Rocks, a political club based in Sedona, said she will make her decision on whom to support based on environmental issues.
“Arizona is a huge environmental state, Ms. Williams said. “Water is everything to us here. It s all about water.
She attended a small meeting Thursday with Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a Portland Democrat who was stumping on Mr. Kerry s behalf.
With voters in seven states going to the polls tomorrow, gone are the days when candidates could bounce from town to town leisurely chatting up voters in local diners and meeting halls. Now they skip from state to state, sometimes sending in “surrogates like Mr. Blumenauer to speak on their behalf. They are also relying on TV interviews and ads to get their messages out.
Arizona has long tried to play a significant role in presidential politics, but it has mostly failed. In 1972, New York City Mayor John Lindsay, a Democrat, won here, but his candidacy ultimately failed. In 1996, Republican publisher Steve Forbes defeated Kansas Sen. Bob Dole here, but his campaign fizzled. Now bundled with six other states a week after New Hampshire s primary, Arizona will again compete for the attention of those candidates still in the race.