TWO Democratic women candidates, both running against better-financed male opponents, are making significant waves in key political races here.
State Sen. Karan English, running in Arizona's newly created Sixth Congressional District, has a substantial lead - up to 20 points - over Republican opponent Doug Wead, a former special assistant to President Bush.
Claire Sargent, a self-proclaimed grass-roots activist and environmentalist, faces a well-financed Republican incumbent, Sen. John McCain, who has been flooding radio, television, and print with advertisements.
"McCain is an unpopular, entrenched incumbent in an anti-incumbent year of the woman," says Keven Willey, editorial writer for the Arizona Republic. "Conventional wisdom is McCain is unbeatable, but I think the race is far more fluid in a very fluid year."
The polls, however, don't look good for Mrs. Sargent. Bruce Merrill, a pollster at Arizona State University, has Senator McCain at 61 percent, Sargent at 30 percent, and former Gov. Evan Mecham, running as an independent, at 9 percent. Ten percent of voters are still undecided.
But several observers say Sargent's late primary in early September has delayed new fund-raising efforts and that she could significantly close the gap if she can get her message out.
Mr. McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, is a pragmatic conservative who is popular with Senate colleagues. Though McCain began regaining public trust with his military expertise during the Persian Gulf war, his alleged association with Charles Keating in the savings and loan scandal still elicits shows of public distaste in civic gatherings.
"It's gotten to the point where I don't even want to walk next to him in a parade," says a top city official here, requesting anonymity. "There is so much heckling and booing."
"He has to feel he is in trouble or he wouldn't be spending so much money so quickly," says Sargent, sitting in her Phoenix campaign headquarters.
She lays out a campaign strategy, she says, "based on change, integrity, and pro-choice," undergirded by new ideas for jobs, education and health care.
A mother of three, Sargent lived in New York City and Westchester County before moving to Arizona in 1978. She helped start the Desert Cities project, a first-ever gathering of representatives from 16 desert cities in 11 countries who are creating models of affordable, urban desert housing.
She would like to make the state the international capital of solar energy, creating community schools that are also health-care centers and child-care facilities. And she says Arizona should be a leader in converting its defense and aerospace industries to civilian and other high-tech manufacturing.
But she has taken her lumps in the state news media.
"As a community activist, Mrs. Sargent served a worthwhile purpose," wrote William Cheshire, editor of the editorial pages for the Arizona Republic. "But as a US Senator she would have more negatives than Kodak."
"[Sargent] is routinely being called an airhead to the point where she has become the issue," notes political analyst Earl DeBerge. "McCain has been able to focus on her rather than the issues."
Sargent's strategy, so far, has been to stage weekly press conferences "for free media," she says, handing out lists of contributors to McCain's campaign. At one recent rally, a man wearing a McCain mask is manipulated by strings from behind by a self-styled, cigar-puffing, special-interest, PAC-man.
Karan English comes with a long list of honors and political experience. A Coconino county supervisor from 1980 to 1986, she served four years in the Arizona House of Representatives and is currently chairwoman of the Environment Committee for the state Senate.
Unlike Sargent, English is recommended by Emily's List, a political network for Democratic women, and endorsed by the Women's Campaign Fund.
Interviewed at a Clinton/Gore campaign headquarters here, she says she believes she can be an "agent of change, shaking things up, so people get a fair shake."
She has sponsored bills to clean up the environment, fought for AIDS relief, and been an advocate for low-income citizens. She speaks about aggressively reducing the federal deficit.
Her opponent, Doug Wead, moved to the state two years ago to become a leader of the anti-tax movement. His platform stance includes "no" to increased government spending, increased grazing fees, the state's anti-trapping initiative, and gun control. He supports the balanced budget amendment and rural enterprise zones.
"Karan English is a bright, experienced and articulate politician and the people know it," says state political analyst Bob Robb.
Noting recent polls that show her lead narrowing, he adds, "but she is liberal for her district, which is highly conservative Republican territory."