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September 01, 2008

Arizonans Head To Primary Polls

Republicans rank Democratic Rep. Harry Mitchell among their top take-out targets this year, and Arizona voters head to the polls tomorrow to decide which candidate will face him in November. But an increasingly nasty primary campaign that has rent factions of the local GOP could turn a promising opportunity into another missed chance.

The field of five serious Republican candidates looking to take on Mitchell includes three current or former state legislators, the former Maricopa County Treasurer and a one-time top staffer on a Congressional subcommittee that deals with water, a key issue for the Copper State.

Increasingly, Arizona observers agree, the race is coming down to a fight between former county Treasurer David Schweikert and Susan Bitter Smith, who served in the state legislature and is now a member of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. Schweikert and Bitter Smith have lobbed barbs back and forth, asserting the other is not a true conservative, with Schweikert taking the more negative line.

Both candidates are on the air with advertisements, but Schweikert has serious help in characterizing his rival. The Club for Growth, which backs Schweikert, dumped more than $200,000 into last-minute ads on radio and television opposing Bitter Smith. Bitter Smith has responded with her own mailers hitting Schweikert's record in the Treasurer's office.

The winner will face Mitchell, a freshman who represents the Tempe- and Scottsdale-based Fifth District after beating Rep. J.D. Hayworth in 2006. Mitchell has serious roots in the community, having been mayor of Tempe for fourteen years and a state senator for two terms in a previously Republican-leaning seat. That history, his relatively moderate record in his first term and his major bankroll matched up against what is likely to be an opponent with a depleted post-primary warchest is going to make Mitchell tough to unseat.

Copper State voters will also choose nominees to replace Rep. Rick Renzi in the state's massive First District (At a shade over 58,000 square miles, the district is larger than 26 states). State Mining Association Executive Director Sydney Hay is favored over a weak field on the Republican side, while State Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick has piqued the attention of national Democrats who have long seen her as one of their top pickup opportunities.

Kirkpatrick has to get by community activist Howard Shanker, who is expected to do well in the district's Native American reservations, and former television reporter Mary Kim Titla.

Republicans settled on and coalesced around Hay after more than half a dozen other potential candidates, most of them state legislators, passed on the race. Hay would start the general election at a distinct disadvantage to the well-funded Kirkpatrick, who is already a member of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Red to Blue program.

Republican Rep. John Shadegg and Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords will skate through their primaries, but both could face tough matchups in November.

Shadegg faces attorney Bob Lord in his north Phoenix district, and unlike earlier opponents Lord actually knows how to fundraise. Democrats say the district has the same partisan breakdown as Mitchell's, making it winnable, but Republicans point out that the demographics favor their party much more in Shadegg's district, where voters are less likely to have advanced degrees and make less money.

Giffords faces a top Republican recruit in State Senate President Tim Bee, a strong fundraiser with a good reputation in the Tucson-based seat. Giffords beat a hard-right candidate in 2006, and the GOP points out that Bee is much more centrist than that 2006 opponent. Still, Giffords has a good political base, a big bank account and the most conservative record of any Democrat in the state, meaning she will be tough to unseat.