Democrats prepare to take on the Southwest

PHOENIX — As the 2004 presidential race turns south and west out of New Hampshire, Southwestern states are poised to play unaccustomed early and influential roles in choosing the Democratic nominee.

Arizona, Oklahoma and New Mexico will choose nearly half the convention delegates at stake in the seven states with primaries or caucuses on Tuesday.

Together with South Carolina, the Southwestern states are the first tests of strength in the Sun Belt for front-runner John Kerry. Barely more than an afterthought in those states just weeks ago, the Massachusetts senator appears to be gaining ground after victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The Southwestern contests also represent the first significant displays of Hispanic voting power in this year’s presidential race.

In previous presidential elections, South Carolina traditionally has been the first stop in the South after Iowa and New Hampshire, while Western and Southwestern states were later on the primary calendar. This year, Democratic officials agreed to move the three Southwestern states to Feb. 3 to give the region a greater voice.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who will serve as chairman at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in late July, said the early positioning makes candidates “more attuned to Western and Southwestern issues.” The region is concerned with issues such as immigration, veterans, energy policy, water shortages and the environment.

With less than a week before the contests, political leaders and pollsters in the three Southwestern states say a large number of undecided voters make the outcomes difficult to predict.

A poll published Sunday in the Arizona Republic, the state’s largest newspaper, showed Kerry had surged to the top of the field in that state after polls just two weeks earlier showed him toward the back of the pack.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark is widely considered to be Kerry’s most formidable adversary in the Sun Belt; having grown up in Arkansas, he is running as a virtual native son. By contrast, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who was dethroned as the perceived front-runner by Kerry’s Iowa victory.

Kerry faces his biggest challenge in Oklahoma, where he has no substantial campaign organization. A poll by an Oklahoma television station placed him third, with Clark leading and Edwards second, a performance at least partially attributable to Edwards’ 12 visits to the state.

Demographically, Arizona, Oklahoma and New Mexico are home to numerous military installations and hundreds of thousands of veterans. Clark, who commanded the NATO bombing in Yugoslavia, and Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, are vigorously competing for veterans’ votes.

With their proximity to the Mexican border, Arizona and New Mexico also have a strong bilingual culture and a vast reservoir of Hispanic voters, the country’s fastest-growing and largest minority. New Mexico has the largest percentage of Hispanic voters of any state at 42 percent; a quarter of Arizona’s voters are Hispanic.

Arizona is perhaps the most diverse state, reflecting years of Sun Belt immigration that has fused Yankees from the Northeast and Midwest with Hispanic and Native American cultures. The diversity has made Arizona what analysts describe as an emerging “swing state” that’s being courted heavily by both parties. Republicans have 43 percent of the electorate, Democrats 38 percent; independents number about 20 percent.

With more than 5 million voters, Arizona is the most populous of the three and one of the West’s most populous states. Because of its size and diversity, political leaders hope to keep it as an early primary state and wrest the presidential king-maker role from rural Northern states.

“I believe we could be the Iowa of 2008,” boasted Paul Hegarty, director of the Arizona Democratic Party.