Action Hero Carmona Threatens GOP Hold in Arizona

PHOTO: Richard Carmona

For the first time in nearly two decades, the state of Arizona is going to the polls on Election Day guaranteed to pick a new U.S. Senator. The race to replace retiring Republican Jon Kyl is the closest in a generation, with Democrat Richard Carmona -- perhaps the most interesting man in American politics -- running neck-and-neck with Jeff Flake, a GOP congressman.

Carmona was handpicked and recruited by President Obama to take on Flake, who holds a statistically insignificant lead in most of the latest local polls. Democrats are banking on Carmona's surprising, occasionally dangerous life and lively political background – an independent running as a Democrat for the first time, he was surgeon general under President George W. Bush – to swing a campaign that's cost millions and won him some high-profile supporters.

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The son of Puerto Rican parents, Carmona served as a Special Forces medic in Vietnam and earned two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars. After his return, Carmona joined the Pima County Sheriff's Department as a deputy, serving as a SWAT team leader, while also practicing as a surgeon.

In 1992, Carmona rescued a man from a cliff in the snowy Pinaleno Mountains, rappelling down a 75-foot line from a helicopter.

He was serving as head of the Tucson Medical Center trauma unit at the time.

Seven years later, while Carmona was off-duty from his sheriff's deputy service, he saw a traffic accident in Tucson and stopped to offer medical assistance. One of the drivers shot at him and the bullet grazed his head. Carmona shot back and killed the man. It was later discovered that the man was mentally unstable and wanted for murder.

But Carmona hasn't always been cast in such a positive light. Upon his nomination for U.S. surgeon general, a 2002 Los Angeles Times story portrayed Carmona as belligerent and difficult to work with, digging into his tenure at Tucson Medical Center.

It's a theme Flake's campaign seized on as the race tightened this fall and the candidates exchanged extremely personal, nasty ads.

Cristina Beato, a senior Health and Human Services official during the Bush years, accused Carmona in a TV commercial of knocking loudly on her door late at night when she was his boss.

"There was an angry pounding on the door in the middle of the night. I'm a single mom. I feared for my kids and for myself," Beato says. "It was Richard Carmona, and I was his boss. Carmona is not who he seems. He has issues with anger, with ethics, and with women. I have testified to this under oath to Congress. Richard Carmona, should never, ever be in the U.S. Senate."

From Hard Political Facts to Historical Indicators, Follow the Election Night Signs

Carmona's campaign denied the incident took place and responded with another ad featuring another former boss. In it, former SWAT commander Kathleen Brennan, under whom Carmona served in Pima County, Ariz., for years, vouches for Carmona's treatment of women and attacks Flake.

"When I see a career politician like Jeff Flake attacking Rich Carmona, who has spent his life helping others, it's despicable. Congressman Flake should be ashamed," Brennan says in the spot.

Later, when Carmona joked that a male debate moderator was "prettier" than CNN anchor and presidential debate moderator Candy Crowley, Flake released another video, this one saying the Democrat "repeatedly demeans women."

The ad wars soon took darkly comic turn when Carmona released a spot showing current Arizona Senators McCain and Kyl, both Republicans, praising him during confirmation hearings after his 2002 appointment as U.S. Surgeon General.

In response, the senators cut an ad of their own, calling Carmona dishonest for "implying" that they supported his candidacy.

Now, on Election Day, there is one last controversy: Arizona Democrats have told local media they are receiving robocalls from the Flake campaign that provide incorrect information about when and where they can vote.

In response, The Arizona Republic reports, they are demanding "that the Arizona Secretary of State's Office, the Arizona Attorney General's Office, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice look into the Flake calls."

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