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Dems' debate puts spotlight on Ariz. issues
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 8, 2003
Chip Scutari

Dems' debate puts spotlight on Ariz. issues

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean learns of Latin Americans dying in the Southwestern desert and calls for stricter labor and environmental standards in Mexico and other countries to help stifle illegal immigration.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry reacts to the poverty of Hispanic immigrants with a plan to save them millions on check-cashing and wire transfers they use to send money back to their families.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman views border conditions in Nogales and pushes for private money to create an "American Dream Fund" to help all immigrants pay for English-language classes.

Welcome to presidential politics, Arizona style.

The nine Democratic presidential contenders, who face off in a nationally televised debate Thursday night, will tout their Southwestern credentials by flashing expertise on subjects ranging from immigration reform to forest health.

All the while they will try to woo Hispanics, who now make up more than 25 percent of Arizona's population.

The debate, at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix, will be televised nationally on CNN beginning at 5 p.m. With the pivotal Arizona primary, set for Feb. 3, less than four months away, many experts say the campaign is moving into its first crucial stage.

"Whoever is going to emerge must begin to look as a winner and not a whiner," said Barry Dill, a lobbyist who helped steer Gov. Janet Napolitano's 2002 campaign.

The candidates agree that the No. 1 issue in Arizona, as in much of the country, is reviving an economy that has lost more than 2 million manufacturing jobs nationwide in the past three years.

Most agree that dealing with immigration in Arizona and the Southwest is essential to a healthy economy.

U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, for example, wants to create an "earned immigration status" for law-abiding immigrants who have lived here for five years and worked for two years. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards would make it easier for immigrants who worked hard and followed the law to become U.S. citizens.

The candidates also are doing their best to communicate with Hispanics. Dean is doing Spanish-language TV ads, titled "Valores Hispanos" (Hispanic Values), in which he says his values are the same as those of the Hispanic community.

One front-running candidate, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who is leading in some polls even though he joined the race a few weeks ago, has yet to develop positions on immigration reform. Those are expected to come soon. For now, his campaign is concentrating heavily on job creation.

Thursday night will be the first of the six national debates sponsored by the Democratic National Committee that won't be handcuffed by a specific theme.

The pre-debate sniping among the top contenders already has started. In an interview Tuesday, Dean defended his stance on trade and its link to stopping illegal immigration.

The stance originated from his concern about Mexican citizens suffering to the point that they would risk their lives to eke out a living in Arizona and other border states.

"In the long run, I believe that developing countries must have the same human-rights standards and labor standards in terms of trade that we do," Dean said. "I've been attacked for saying that, but the truth is that will stop illegal immigration. Because when you allow labor standards and environmental standards in developing countries . . . you raise the standard of living and help create the middle class."

A Lieberman spokesman said Dean's trade policy would be disastrous for the economy.

"Some of our rivals, especially Governor Dean, have made statements that they would only trade with countries that have the same labor standards as the U.S.," said Adam Kovacevich, Lieberman's deputy press secretary. "It would cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars and many, many jobs."

Tricia Enright, Dean's communications manager, scoffed a Lieberman's claim.

"That's utter nonsense; that's a bunch of hooey," Enright said. "We believe in fair trade under agreements that incorporate strict and enforceable labor and environmental standards."

Other candidates are Carol Moseley Braun, a former U.S. senator and ambassador; U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio; and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York.

Some are looking for a personal connection when they debate at the Orpheum Theatre. Edwards hopes to connect with Hispanic voters in Arizona and the Southwest by playing up his rural working-class roots. Edwards rose from the small, racially mixed town of Robbins, N.C., to a successful law practice.

"We think that Senator Edwards can do well with Hispanic voters because his message of wanting a government that rewards hard work over wealth comes from his background," said Jennifer Palmieri, an Edwards spokeswoman. "His work ethic is something that not just recent immigrants, but second- and third-generation Hispanics can embrace."

Edwards, a relative political newcomer with just one Senate term under his belt, has been one of the candidates who has spent the most time in Arizona, sensing a wide-open opportunity for victory.

Jim Pederson, chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, said it's crunch time for the candidates.

"I expect them to really go after each other," Pederson said. "I don't think that's all bad. All the candidates realize that this is the time to carve out a niche for themselves and get above the field. The focus of the country is on Arizona. We've never been on the political stage like this before."

Staff reporters Robbie Sherwood and Christina Leonard contributed to this article.