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McCain's Wayward Home State: Spate of New Polls Say Arizona's a Toss Up

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PHOENIX -- Although John McCain was ahead in his home state by 14 points at the end of September, a spate of new polls reveals a substantial shift, putting Democratic nominee Barack Obama well within striking distance here. Point spreads separating the candidates fall within the margin of error.

Arizona pollsters Carol and Pete Zimmerman give McCain only a 2 point lead (44-42) in Arizona. The poll shows Obama with a surprising edge among voters who are 65 years and older, while McCain has the lead among voters 45 years and younger. Neither Obama nor McCain is receiving much support from crossover voters of the other party, but Obama edges out McCain among Independents by about 4 points.

Project New West, an organization committed to Democratic political realignment in the Intermountain West, commissioned a poll that was conducted by Virginia-based Myers Research and Strategic Services and Portland, Oregon-based Grove Insight. The poll was conducted October 23-24. It shows McCain only 4 points ahead of Obama (48-44) among likely voters in Arizona, within the poll's margin of error. The poll also shows Obama ahead by 1 point among those who have already voted, which could portend well for Obama if demoralized Republicans fail to turn out between now and November 4.

The Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University conducted a poll over the weekend, which is expected to be released early this week. Dr. Bruce Merrill, the political scientist who oversees the poll, expects the race to have tightened since the last Cronkite poll, taken at the end of September, which showed McCain with a 7 point lead. Merrill expects the new poll to show Obama within 4 points.

Zimmerman believes that the McCain campaign will ultimately prevail in his home state.

Dr. Merrill told a local news outlet that the tightening race leaves the possibility open for Obama to win in Arizona.

According to a report by the GOP-leaning Arizona Capitol Times, an internal Republican poll also shows McCain up by only 3 points in Arizona. The poll showed McCain with a strong lead in Northern Arizona but tied with Obama in Maricopa County, an area a statewide Republican candidate must win.

The end result will likely hinge on voter turnout (Democrats have been voting early at a higher rate so far) and whether undecided voters break for Obama or McCain (approximately 10 percent of voters were undecided in these polls). Merrill said turnout among Hispanics and voters under 30 years old will likely determine the race.

McCain has represented Arizona in the U.S. Senate for nearly thirty years and Merrill says it is unclear whether the economic turmoil has ruined McCain's chances to win here. If not for McCain's home state advantage, Merrill says he thinks Obama would win in Arizona. By any measure, an Obama win in Arizona would be an impressive feat. The state handed its 10 electoral votes to George Bush in both 2000 (by 6 points) and 2004 (by 11 points).

Until now, both McCain and Obama have mostly ignored Arizona. McCain has been consistently ahead in the polls in the state and this is not a state required for Obama to get to the requisite 270 electoral votes. Obama has not made a trip to Arizona since January, and McCain has not held any major events here since the general election got underway. Even Arizona Governor Napolitano has been traveling to battleground states to campaign as a surrogate for Obama.

Neither campaign is buying ads across the state. Only ads that were purchased in national media buys are being shown in Arizona, which means Arizona voters are seeing considerably more Obama ads than McCain ads due to the financial advantage of the Obama campaign.

Dedicated to a 50 state strategy, Obama put paid staffers into each of the 50 states, including a small cadre of staffers in Arizona, in an effort to build long term ground operations even in areas that may not reap rewards for years to come. The Obama campaign opened an independent office in Phoenix, which functions as the state headquarters. In Tucson, the Obama campaign shares an office with the campaign office of Rep. Grijalva (CD-7).

McCain organizer Wes Gullett points out that while Obama has brought resources into Arizona, McCain has taken resources out of Arizona to put them into true battleground states. The McCain campaign in Arizona has focused on recruiting supporters to travel to New Mexico and other hard-fought states. Although the Obama campaign is also sending volunteers to New Mexico, the Arizona Democratic Party has also worked hard to integrate the Obama campaign with voter mobilization efforts for down-ticket campaigns.

Some Obama supporters say they don't mind that the Obama campaign has put few resources in Arizona. They have faith that Obama can win the state on volunteer power alone. Still, some wish fewer volunteers were being sent to New Mexico. Local volunteer Janet Higgins doesn't think it's fair to take people out of Arizona, "We are trying hard to turn this state blue in all the races. Take people from California!" She adds. "We need people working in Arizona."

Arizona Democrats on the ground believe the most important thing the Obama campaign can do is to increase Obama's coattails. Both parties agree that the real battle lines have been drawn in the races for Arizona's Congressional delegation, the state legislature, and a few key county positions. Higgins also has a message for Arizona Democrats. "You don't want to wake up on November 5 and wish that you could have done more. You don't want any regrets about any of the Arizona races."

Indeed, many down-ticket races in Arizona are highly competitive, and Obama's coattail effect may be larger than anticipated. Many state Republicans have been demoralized by recent scandals, infighting, and embarrassing incidents involving Arizona Republican leaders.

In Arizona's first Congressional district, where Rick Renzi (R) is under indictment, Democratic candidate Ann Kirkpatrick is expected to win handily. Her opponent, Sydney Hay has been successfully portrayed in advertisements and mailers as a corporate lobbyist and a Washington, DC, insider. Although Kirkpatrick faced a tough primary, she was also added to the DCCC's Red to Blue program relatively early in the campaign, which helped give her an unexpected edge in fundraising. The infamous "GOP Death List" also shows Hay losing the race to Kirkpatrick.

Arizona's Northern Phoenix third district, where Republicans were able to retain a registration advantage despite losing ground throughout the rest of the state, is its most hotly contested race. Incumbent Rep. John Shadegg (R) is being challenged by political newcomer Bob Lord (D).

Last week was a laughably bad week for Rep. John Shadegg (R-CD6), who recently said that no Republican seat is safe this year. He announced that he never had sexual relations with some woman that no one seemed to have ever heard of (a woman it turned out everyone had just forgotten), an issue only brought up because reporters were asking questions about Shadegg spending $20,000 to hire a high-powered criminal defense attorney for a libel suit in which Shadegg was the plaintiff, not the defendant. It turns out Shadegg didn't have sexual relations with that woman, and his having to talk about it was typical of the week he was having. Then a World War II veteran asked Shadegg to remove an allegedly doctored photo from a Shadegg advertisement. The veteran appeared in the photo and claimed it had been unfairly altered. Shadegg, of course, has also been attempting to tamp down questions raised by news that his campaign manager's credit card was found under a desk at Arizona Democratic Party Headquarters.

Until recently, Shadegg held a consistent lead in the polls, but his bad-news week combined with Obama's expanding coattails and dwindling support for McCain in Arizona could lead to Shadegg's ouster from Congress. A new poll released by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) shows Shadegg's opponent Bob Lord (D) now ahead by 1 point, making this race a dead heat.

Lord describes the Arizona Democratic Party's coordinated campaign as "phenomenal," and says that the Republican Party's decision to send Arizona resources and volunteers to other states may have given his campaign the edge he needs to eek out a win. With a strong ground operation already in place, Lord Communications Director Sarah Muench says the campaign is able to focus on raising money to run advertisements during the last week of the eletion season. She adds, "A strong field effort is what it takes to win in a close race like this one."

Arizona Democrats are confident that they will gain a majority in the state House this year, and a few tout the possibility of a majority in the state Senate as well. Local Democratic leaders say that the Democratic Party has the strongest ground operations they've ever had in Arizona. This weekend, the Arizona Democratic Party had a goal of contacting 75,000 independent voters on a single Saturday. Local Republican strategist, speaking of Arizona, said, "The Democrats are well-funded, organized, and hungry."

A Republican political operative told the Arizona Capitol Times under condition of anonymity,

This is shaping up to be the worst landslide for a Republican since (former Arizona Senator Barry) Goldwater. I realize the irony in that. If I were to place a bet today, I'd say McCain loses his home state.