Arizona Vote Poses First Test of Western Themes

THE chant "Go, Pat, Go" rings off the cinder-block walls of Woodard Junior High's auditorium, packed to capacity with more than 1,200 people. "Breathtaking" is how plumber Alec Sullivan and his wife Jettie describe the experience.

In small towns like this across Arizona, GOP candidate Pat Buchanan is demonstrating his ability to generate a religious fervor for his campaign-cum-crusade.

Such scenes lend credence to a growing belief among party officials and analysts here that Mr. Buchanan is poised to repeat his New Hampshire triumph in Arizona. A victory in this state, regarded by many as the first test of Western support, would add significant momentum to a run for the presidential nomination that is already shaking the Republican Party leadership.

Local polls put Sen. Bob Dole in the lead for now, but he has campaigned only lightly here, leaving some to ask if he has written off the Arizona vote. Even Senator Dole's supporters ask how to energize his campaign. "The question is, can the Dole people mobilize our voters - the seniors, the party moderates?" says Sen. John McCain, who like most elected officials here backed Texas Sen. Phil Gramm until he dropped out. He now supports Dole. "What we need to do is arouse some passion for Bob Dole," he says, a task he admits is looking almost Herculean right now.

Dole was notably absent from the debate held here last Thursday. His decision not to attend left party leaders sputtering in anger and disbelief. "I think Dole made a serious mistake in not being here," said Republican National Committee chairman Mike Hellon.

Party officials are suggesting Dole will sacrifice Arizona, calculating that he can balance a defeat here with victories in primaries also held on Tuesday in North and South Dakota. But Arizona's size and importance are likely to give this greater weight in the game of perception and expectations so important thus far.

This marks the first time Arizona Republicans have selected their nominee by primary rather than through party caucuses, with the winner getting all of the state's 39 delegates.

But the significance of Arizona's vote goes well beyond the delegate numbers. Arizona shares with many Western states a penchant for a maverick conservatism, one which stresses individualism and rejects government interference, embodied by the state's most famous political figure, former Sen. Barry Goldwater.

But there is also a strong current of rural populism here, an anti-elite, anti-business social conservatism associated politically with former GOP Gov. Evan Mecham, a foe of the party leadership.

Many of the issues dominating the campaign here reflect a peculiarly Western tint. Illegal immigration is proving to be the key issue for Buchanan, who repeatedly, in ads and appearances, vows to halt the "invasion" of illegal Mexicans, whom he links to rising crime and other problems.

Here, in the border city of Yuma, this hits home. School nurse Aileen Hopely talks of schools "stressed to the limit" by Mexican children and hospitals filled with Mexican women "who come over to have their babies." Buchanan's assault on the North American Free Trade Agreement plays well here, even though GOP officials argue the state has benefited from trade with its neighbor.

Hispanic protesters have dogged Buchanan at almost every stop on this issue. But he probably gains votes in Republican ranks by using them as foils for his tough stand on the issue.

The Arizona campaign has raised other issues sure to show up elsewhere in the West - defense of property rights against environmental regulation and attacks on the Federal management and control of land, most prominently.

The anti-government, anti-tax conservatism of media millionaire Steve Forbes also has resonance here, particularly with Goldwater-type libertarians. Backed by some $3 million in spending on advertising, Mr. Forbes won a strong following in Arizona but that backing has slipped here, as elsewhere, in reaction to his negative advertising and the belief that he cannot win.

Latest poll results show Buchanan's support climbing. A poll conducted early last week for a local TV station - probably understating the effect of Buchanan's New Hampshire win - shows Dole with 25 percent, Buchanan with 21 percent, and Forbes, who once led the state, dropping to 19. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander pulled in 11 percent; 19 percent are undecided.

Forbes has been campaigning hard this week in Arizona with a new emphasis on a positive message. He hopes to leverage his win in Saturday's Delaware primary, largely uncontested by other candidates, to seize a campaign-rejuvenating victory here.

Mr. Alexander has largely ignored Arizona in favor of South Carolina, which holds its primary Saturday. But a fourth-place finish here may undermine what little momentum he has.

If Buchanan wins tomorrow it will owe as much to the strength of his organization as to the power of his message. He is campaigning for a full five days here, following a schedule of densely packed appearances across the state.

Buchanan's grass-roots organization here draws heavily on the followers of former Governor Mecham, along with the strong support of Christian right-to-life activists, gun-control opponents, and Mormons (significantly, both Mecham and Buchanan's campaign manager, his sister Bay, are Mormons).

The strength of these followers is greatest in rural Arizona and in certain parts of the Phoenix area. With a low overall turnout expected, that core may be enough to produce yet another victory for Buchanan.

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