By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times –
TEMPE, Ariz. — Like an orphan in the desert, Arizona feels lonely and abandoned this election day, as Republican presidential hopefuls scurry across snow-swept Michigan ahead of a pair of crucial primaries 2,000 miles apart.
It has been nearly a week since any of the contestants set foot in Arizona, departing almost as soon as they finished debating last Wednesday night in Mesa.
Worse, from a local perspective, the candidates have spent virtually no time discussing the state’s high foreclosure rate — the third worst in the country — or other Arizona issues, such as water and land use. Immigration, one of the state’s perennial concerns, came up in the debate just briefly, more than an hour into the discussion.
The reason the state has been largely snubbed is simple: Romney, locked in a fierce battle in Michigan, is the prohibitive favorite in Arizona. A loss in either of Tuesday’s primaries could set his campaign reeling. But a defeat in Michigan — where Romney was born and raised and his father served three terms as governor — would be devastating.
Whether by squeaker or blowout, the top voter-getter in Arizona will claim all 29 of the state’s delegates. Michigan allocates its 30 delegates proportionally, so a close second could mean a considerable share.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Romney’s main challenger, has centered his campaign in Michigan partly for that reason. The other candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, have generally campaigned with their eyes cast on the 10 states voting March 6.
Here in Arizona, as elsewhere, Romney benefits from having run once before. He finished a respectable second behind home-state Sen. John McCain in the 2008 primary and even beat him in a Phoenix-area congressional district and one rural county, both with large Mormon populations. Romney has scarcely stopped running since.
He boasts a strong fundraising and organizational base, built out from his support among fellow Mormons, who can make up 10 percent or more of the GOP electorate depending on turnout. Romney also enjoys support from the state Republican Party establishment, including McCain and Gov. Jan Brewer.
Santorum seemed to have a brief opening in Arizona, soaring in polls after a string of victories earlier this month in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri invigorated his campaign and renewed doubts about Romney, long shaky on his front-runner’s perch.
But many observers say Santorum squandered his last, best chance to pull an Arizona upset with his middling performance at last week’s debate. At one point he confessed to going against his own better judgment and backing President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative, a federal education program enormously unpopular with conservatives, out of fealty to fellow Republicans.
“He had sort of provisionally sold the idea that he’s the principled conservative, he’s the guy who stands up and speaks his mind,” said Mike Hellon, a former Arizona representative on the Republican National Committee, who was inside the debate hall. “But then he talked about taking one for the team, about politics being a team sport, and there was just at that point a palpable feel of the air going out.”
Hellon said he has already cast his vote — without a lot of enthusiasm — for Romney.
While that may be not be much of an endorsement, it does point to another huge Romney advantage in this state. Polling suggests the former Massachusetts governor has banked a commanding lead in the early vote: hundreds of thousands of ballots that could make up half the turnout.
Voting began here Feb. 2, just days after Romney’s Florida landslide and nearly a week before Santorum’s three victories reinvigorated his flagging campaign.
The debate last week was a consolation prize of sorts after Arizona backed down from a threat to ignore national party rules and hold its primary in January. The idea at the time was to draw more candidates and attention to the state.