09/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

McCain's Home State Woes: On the Ground In Arizona

Conventional wisdom in presidential politics says you win your home state. You're also supposed to pull everyone else on the state ticket into the win column with you. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain should win Arizona. He's in his fourth term as senator from a state widely viewed as a Republican reliable. This is Goldwater Country, the Wild West, where retail establishments post signs kindly requesting you leave your gun in the car. Arizona's as red as the Grand Canyon at sunset. Or at least it used to be.

Tip O'Neil said that all politics is local, and here on the ground, Arizona looks purple.

I live in Oro Valley, Arizona, suburb of Tucson. The City of Tucson is solidly Democratic but up until recently Oro Valley was anything but. OV is pretty close to the epitome of what 'suburb' brings to mind; families and retirees, sign restrictions and height ordinances, a holiday parade featuring local high school bands. My hometown could be counted on to be solidly Republican and has been since its incorporation in 1974. Not now. Our most recent election produced a Town Council with a decidedly progressive majority. In 2006 our two seats in the State House went Democratic, and that same year, after twenty-two years of Republican representation in D.C., we elected Gabrielle Giffords, a congresswoman with a 'D' after her name. In 2006 OV looked for all the world like a liberal bastion: the majority of OV voters actually voted straight down the Democratic ticket -- including voting for our governor, prominent Democrat Janet Napolitano. Woa, cowboy. That's a whole lot of blue.

Long-time Arizona resident Michael Bryan, creator of "Blog for AZ," says he's seen the change taking place. "Republicans are just not the dominant force they used to be. Democrats have picked up seats both in DC and the State House. We have a Democratic Governor and Attorney General. Twenty years ago all this would have been unthinkable." And Bryan sees a strong possibility for more blue in 2008, including a possible House seat pick up in District 1 (currently held by Republican Rick Renzi, who decided not to run after being indicted by a grand jury). Bryan puts the shift is partly changing demographics (including the influx of residents from Democratic states) and partly a shift of power to Independent voters, which he says is now the second biggest voting block in Arizona. "If you look at how Independents are voting nationally," Bryan says, "they're leaning Democratic. That bodes well for Democratic chance here in Arizona."

Bryan believes McCain has badly handled Arizona. "If a change is going to happen it'll happen in the Hispanic vote. McCain used to have that vote. But that support is gone because in order to capture the nomination, McCain sold them out; he had to change his beliefs to appeal to the far right view on immigration. And when he did that, he abandoned his Hispanic supporters and there's nothing he can do to bring that back." Bryan isn't convinced McCain will lose his home state but he is convinced on that one point. "If McCain loses Arizona, it'll be because he lost the Hispanic vote."

Coming out of an event before the presidential primary here I was walking behind two retirees; well dressed, tan, fit and, I couldn't help but hear, not real wild about John McCain, especially the gentleman. "I'm telling you," he said to his companion, "if McCain gets the nomination he's not getting my vote. I don't trust him! I don't like him! I won't vote for him!" By chance they passed a car sporting an Obama bumper sticker. I watched the gentleman turn his head, gesture at the bumper sticker and proclaim loudly, "But if that guy wins I'll switch parties and vote for him instead!"

So we Arizona Democrats are feeling something that for us is pretty new. I think it's optimism but native Arizonans, a pragmatic and realistic bunch if ever there was one, aren't quite that giddy. Most long-term Arizona Democrats I've spoken to are merely "hopeful," they "have their fingers crossed," they "think they've got a realistic chance." But they see it, too. Our sunsets here in the desert may be brilliantly red, but a new day might be dawning. And it might be as big and blue as the endless Arizona sky.