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Arizona Rising: Record Turn-outs in 'One of McCain's Backyards'

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Obama offices across the state report the same story: volunteer sign-up sheets full. Every phone in every office in use. Overflow crowds for every event. Home parties, grassroots fundraisers, concerts, auctions, all raising money at an unprecedented rate with an unmatched level of enthusiasm.

But volunteers turning out in record numbers for this Democratic candidate for president isn't news anymore, is it?

It is in this state. Because this is Arizona, what Kelly Paisley, Arizona Director for Obama for America called, "the home of at least one of John McCain's backyards."

A seasoned 25 year political veteran, Paisley's never seen anything like this. Speaking at the southern Arizona Obama for America kick-off event this weekend, she looked around at the throng of people who showed up to canvass and said, "I've never seen this level of enthusiasm. I see it in our Phoenix office everyday and look at what we have here in Tucson. It's off the charts." Arizona Communication Director Dave Cieslak and Political Director Gregory Whitten agreed. "This is definitely a ground-up movement in Arizona," says Cieslak. Whitten is amazed at the dedication of volunteers, especially among college students: "We've got 18 and 19 year old college students organizing rallies and events by themselves," with, Whitten confirms, no prompting from the campaign. "They've never done anything like it before. And we've never seen anything like it before."

The watch-parties for the first presidential debate were typical of what the three staffers have been experiencing. Even with three different televisions and watching areas, it was standing room only in the Tucson headquarters, while the Phoenix office projected the image on an outside screen to accommodate hundreds of cheering supporters. These weren't anomalies - every Democratic event in this state has drawn unexpectedly high numbers: a midweek opening of the Phoenix Obama for America office drew over 1,000 people. Over 700 people signed up for the volunteer campaign training known as 'Camp Obama.' More than 4,000 volunteers signed up to work in southern Arizona alone. In the once solidly Republican northwest Tucson suburbs, the Democratic office reports non-stop phone calls and a constant stream of people walking in off the streets, many first-time volunteers, most saying simply, "put me to work."

What's happening here? You can't call it spin from Democratic activists because literally the signs are everywhere - from Flagstaff to Tucson this state is festooned with symbols of Obama support; bumper stickers, yard signs, road signs, buttons on lapels. Anyone driving around this beautiful state would never know that the other presidential candidate is the one with AZ next to his name. The lack of enthusiasm for McCain is just as telling, with one volunteer saying: "I'm actively looking for McCain supporters. I look at the cars on the freeway, I look at neighborhoods, and I keep wondering, where are the McCain bumper stickers? Where are the McCain yard signs? This is his state, and I just don't see them." Meanwhile, "Everything that has Obama's name on it is flying out the door of our office," confirms volunteer Francine Shacter. "I actually wrote directly to John Dean and the DNC and begged for more stuff! And I got it, in a hand-addressed envelope no less!" Volunteer Shasta McManus, who's been working in Tucson for Senator Obama since he declared his candidacy, says everyone's noticed the great increase in intensity. "Oh, yes, Democrats are active," she says, and wonders if the McCain campaign is beginning to notice. "They've obviously taken this state for granted, but I wonder if they aren't starting to feel a little bit threatened." Gilberto Zaragoza agreed, emphatically. Zaragoza is working to re-elect Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva, and he sees the same thing as McManus. "Check out the latest poll of Arizona; it shows McCain up by, what, 11 points? This is McCain's home state. He's a four term senator. He should be wiping the floor with Obama. And he's not. Something's going on here." The mention of polling has the Obama staff nodding in agreement. They, too, think there's a story here, a story that's not being told nationally. Whitten and Cieslak confirm there hasn't been a lot of recent presidential polling of Arizona voters, and Paisley wonders if this lack of information has lulled the McCain campaign into a false sense of security and complacency. Volunteer McManus thinks that's a mistake for McCain. "I look at the number of newly registered voters we're getting, and the youth vote which isn't being counted because nobody's polling cell phone users, and I find myself thinking that as long as we get the voters out, this state could be a toss up. " Her gut feel: the difference between the candidates might even be less than 5%.

That's hardly a ringing recommendation for the state's own senator but it doesn't come as a surprise to Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez. The first elected official from Southern Arizona to declare her support for Barack Obama, the native Arizonan has a lot that she'd like to tell the rest of the country about Obama's opponent. "Look, I've been in office for 16 years. I know how government works. I am sick of hearing McCain bragging to the rest of the country that he doesn't support pork barrel spending. The truth of the matter is he doesn't support legitimate spending either. What's he done for this state? Has he helped bring health care clinics to our Native American lands, where diabetes is running rampant? Our roads are dangerous, overcrowded and falling apart; has he done anything for our crumbling infrastructure? Folks need to listen to the people of Arizona when we tell them this." Paisley seconded the need for Arizonans to speak up, adding: "We have a responsibility to tell the rest of the nation what he's done to our state, and what he might do to our nation." But what's disturbed Rodriguez the most was McCain's choice of a running mate. "Of all the things he's done, of all the decisions he's made, the choice of Sarah Palin showed me, absolutely, that McCain's judgment is not to be trusted. I interview people for positions all the time, men and women. I pick people who have the talent, background and resources to do the job. When you pick someone who doesn't, you doom them to failure. And that's exactly what McCain's done with Palin. Why do you think he's suddenly so protective of her? Why are they hiding her? Because she has no substance. As a professional woman it's unbelievably insulting." Standing beside Rodriguez, nodding in agreement, Obama volunteer Theresa Bibbens says she's lived in Arizona for 25 years and voted for McCain to represent her in the Senate more than once. "But he was a different person then," Bibbens said, shaking her head in disgust. "Who he was then, compared to who he is now, honestly he's not the same person. He's lost his judgment, he's going against his own positions all the time. He's not the person I once voted for." Another volunteer shared a telling story: at a recent debate among candidates for Arizona's state senate, the Republican candidate quoted John McCain twice. Both times the crowd booed loudly.

The calendar may be about to turn to October but it still feels like summer here. The sun beats down with intensity and the temperature hovers at the century mark. Looking up at the clear Arizona sky, Paisley told me how she couldn't get over the enthusiastic volunteers who turned out to walk and canvass in Phoenix on a day when the thermometer reached 106. "It was nothing short of remarkable," Paisley said.

Here in Arizona Barack Obama's campaign may be heating up too. It may just be his opponent who feels that heat, emanating from one of his seven backyards.