Democrats hope ground offensive can seal Arizona

In Arizona, the presidential election has already begun. In fact, thanks to early voting facilities and postal absentee balloting, it has been under way for more than two weeks. And that could have profound significance for John Kerry, in a state which had been all but ceded to George Bush before the debates but whose 10 electoral votes now appear to be very much back in play.

In Arizona, the presidential election has already begun. In fact, thanks to early voting facilities and postal absentee balloting, it has been under way for more than two weeks. And that could have profound significance for John Kerry, in a state which had been all but ceded to George Bush before the debates but whose 10 electoral votes now appear to be very much back in play.

As the two candidates crossed swords in their third and final debate at the University of Arizona last night, party activists were focused on the tactics both sides believe could sew up the state even before election day: bombarding likely supporters with phone calls urging them to vote now rather than later; handing out early voting application forms; and impressing on everyone that every last vote counts.

"October is voting month," says a sign on the door of the Kerry campaign's headquarters in Flagstaff, in the northern part of the state, a slogan everyone is taking to heart. Based on returns so far - roughly the same as the total votes recorded in Arizona's state primary election in September - the registrar of elections for Flagstaff and the vast surrounding county is expecting a staggering 80-85 per cent turn-out.

"Call up everyone in your family - Latinos have large families," one Flagstaff activist, Liz Archuleta, told a group of Hispanic community leaders. "Go out and tell your tios and tias and primos, everybody."

In the past, absentee voting has tended to favour Republicans by a two-to-one margin, but that was largely because the Republicans made it a priority. This time, the Democrats are working just as hard if not harder, setting up more than 40 field offices across Arizona to get out the vote, and get it out early.

Nobody knows how this will all play out, particularly since Arizona is famous for its idiosyncratic political choices and favouring independents above the two main parties. Still, recent polling suggests Senator Kerry has profited handily from his debate performances so far - not least because the nationwide buzz in his favour has translated directly into tangible early votes.

In late September, polls were giving President Bush a 10-15 point lead, causing the Kerry campaign to pull television advertising from Arizona. This week, a statewide survey by Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff suggested the margin had narrowed to five points, with 5 per cent still undecided.

The third debate, held on Arizona's home turf, is likely to be decisive.

The Kerry staff strongly deny they ever gave up on Arizona, and insist that grassroots campaigning is the way to win. "Bill Clinton never had any ads in Arizona and he won in 1996," said Senator Kerry's state communications director Sarah Rosen. The Democratic Party chairwoman for Flagstaff and the surrounding Coconino County, Harriet Young, summed up the two parties' campaigning styles: "They are waging an air war, and we are fighting a ground war."

This year, Ms Young hopes the local effort can give Senator Kerry a decisive margin of 11,000 or more. Is all this wishful thinking by the Democrats? Arizona was originally considered a swing state because its key constituencies - veterans, pensioners worried about health care and Latinos - all seemed fertile ground for Senator Kerry. But the veterans peeled away over the summer, as the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" ads smeared Mr Kerry's military record. Turnout among Latinos, who make up 25 per cent of the state's eligible voters, has always been dismal. Pensioners and women, meanwhile, started breaking towards President Bush because they trusted him more to keep America safe from terrorists.

Clearly, the pendulum is swinging back, but nobody knows by how much. Organisation, clearly, will be key, especially in a large, remote area such as Coconino County.

The fight in northern Arizona has been intensified by one of the few competitive congressional races in the south-west - between an energetic Republican incumbent, Rick Renzi, and a staid but well known Democratic challenger, Paul Babbitt. That said, Mr Kerry, with his patrician Boston manner, has yet to truly connect in no-nonsense Arizona. As the Democrats themselves acknowledge, his improving poll numbers owe more to disillusionment with President Bush than to enthusiasm over him.

"John Kerry does not sell in this area," said Kenton Jones, Republican Party chair in solidly conservative Yavapai County, just south of Flagstaff.

"We didn't elect George Bush for his debating skills, but for his core values. If you can put your hand on what Kerry's core values are, I'd love to hear what you have to say."

However close the race in Arizona gets, that perception may prove to be Senator Kerry's ultimate undoing.

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