Obama Visits Arizona With Eye On Winning
January 24, 2012

PHOENIX -- After Tuesday night's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama heads west to five states that will be key to his re-election next year. One of his first stops will be near Phoenix.

In 2008, then candidate Obama largely ignored the home turf of his opponent, John McCain. But now the the political winds in this historically conservative state are swirling.

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.

"I definitely think I can win," Stauffer said. "The time is right now."

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

"When I beat Joe Arpaio," Stauffer said. "This will be an earthquake in Arizona."

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.

Pollster Michael O’Neil said there’s a thread that ties the turbulence together.

"You bet there is. We’re in economic turmoil," O'Neil said.

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.

Photo by Peter O'Dowd
Democratic organizers Rebecca Larios (left) and Norma Muñoz canvass a South Phoenix neighborhood ahead of President Obama's visit.

"The lay of the land this time is not entirely clear," the pollster said. "There is massive disaffection with government."

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.

People like Norma Muñoz 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.

"Good Morning! Everyone is out today," Muñoz said while walking the neighborhood. "Hi, is this Cassandra?"

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. Muñoz says people are impatient for a better economy.

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

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

"It’s wonderful," she said. "It’s like eating a steak sandwich!"

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.

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.

Photo by Peter O'Dowd
Arizona GOP Chairman Tom Morrissey says conservatives in Arizona strongly oppose the president's economic policies.

"We’ve been awakened to that," Morrissey said.

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.

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

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.