Feb. 27, 2012 -- All eyes are on Arizona ahead of Tuesday's Republican primary, but there's another, non-presidential race in the Grand Canyon State that could matter. This one features Democrats.
Republican senator John Kyl is retiring after his third term, and the race for his seat signifies Democrats' most ambitious, yet plausible, attempt to pick up a GOP-held Senate seat.
The Democratic party establishment's favored candidate was personally handpicked and recruited by President Obama. Plus, he was surgeon general under President George W. Bush, and he's a political independent running as a Democrat for the first time.
Dr. Richard Carmona will likely face off against anti-earmark-crusading U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake (R) in the general election. But the primary competitors in this race, former Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Don Bivens and Republican businessman Wil Cardon, are strong.
The Most Interesting Senate Candidate in the World?
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.
In 1999, 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.
Sounds a little like Dos Equis' "Most Interesting Man in the World," no?
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.
After Carmona left the Bush administration, he accused the administration's political appointees of stifling science in the health sphere. He testified before a congressional committee that officials had delayed and watered down a report on second-hand smoke and forbidden him from speaking about or releasing reports on stem cells, the morning-after pill and sex education. And officials had advised him against attending the Special Olympics, Carmona said, because of the organization's ties to the Kennedy family.
Nonetheless, Carmona says he's maintained good relationships with Republicans since then; his testimony wasn't about payback, he says, it was about answering the questions asked of him. He notes that he sought counsel from senior GOP senators before entering the 2012 race.
With former Democratic state party Chairman Don Bivens angling for his party's nomination, Obama called Carmona to recruit him, after both Republicans and Democrats had sought him as a candidate in previous years.
"We had a nice conversation," Carmona said told ABC News, "and he did urge me to consider running, because he felt that we needed new blood in Washington."
The candidate said he also spoke to two former Republican presidents before deciding to enter the race, declining to name names. (The only two living former GOP presidents are George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.)
A Long Shot for Democrats
Of course, that swashbuckling history doesn't change Arizona's conservative leanings--and the polling for Carmona does not look good.
If voters had to choose today between Carmona and the Republican, Flake, they would elect Flake by a margin of 42 percent to 29 percent, according to an NBC/Marist poll released this week.
Arizona is one of the redder states, with Republicans holding the legislature, the governor's mansion, both Senate seats and five of eight House seats. The same NBC/Marist poll showed Arizonans disapproving of Obama 51 percent to 39 percent.
And there's no guarantee Carmona will be the Democrats' nominee. Bivens has raised more money overall, but Carmona pulled in more than $550,000 in a month and a half of campaigning--more than twice what Bivens raised in the entire fourth quarter of 2011.
But the war chest of the more experienced Flake dwarfs both Democratic candidates. He is able to use the money he's raised over multiple reelection bids in his safe House district, and he now has over $2.5 million in the bank.
However, Democrats are optimistic for two reasons. One of them has to do with Flake, who has never run a statewide race and whose conservative, anti-spending platform has worked well through five reelection terms in his conservative House district south and east of Phoenix. But that platform may not hold up across the entire state.
The other has to do with immigration.
Same Old Immigration Fight ... With a Twist
Ever since Gov. Jan Brewer signed the infamous Arizona immigration law, SB 1070, the issue has dominated Arizona politics. Democrats think that could be a boon, helping them motivate the law's opponents to volunteer and vote.
"I do think it motivated a lot of people, especially in the Latino community, to get involved and it energized them," state House Minority Leader Chad Campbell (D) told TalkingPointsMemo, which noted that the Obama campaign has also included Arizona in its swing-state plans, thanks largely to a riled-up Latino base.
And Arizona Democrats did win the Phoenix mayoral race in 2011.
Flake, meanwhile, has turned hard to the right, after he co-authored a major immigration reform bill with Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.). Their bill contained the same broad strokes as the reform push undertaken in 2007 by Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy. Flake has since abandoned the comprehensive approach, making the same turn McCain did before his Senate reelection campaign in 2010.
"I've been down that road, and it is a dead end," Flake said in March 2011. "The political realities in Washington are such that a comprehensive solution is not possible, or even desirable given the current leadership. Border security must be addressed before other reforms are tackled."
Flake's primary competitor, businessman Wil Cardon, will harp on immigration during their primary contest. "He's been terrible on immigration," Cardon told ABC News. "He's been for open borders and amnesty his entire time in Congress."
Carmona supports the broad strokes of comprehensive reform -- enhanced border security and a pathway to some form of permanent residency -- thereby setting up a campaign in which Flake runs against his own former policies and Carmona touts the general outline of Flake's own bill.
Immigration, it so happens, is part of the reason Carmona is running as a Democrat.
"I couldn't buy into the value proposition that some of the Republicans were touting," Carmona told ABC, speaking about the GOP tendency to rally around deportation and loudly decry the large population of illegal immigrants in the U.S.
This growing optimism, plus having landed Carmona as a candidate, has led national Democrats to include Arizona on their list of target states in 2012 Senate campaigns, along with competitive Democratic-held seats like Virginia and the more likely takeover of Republican incumbent Scott Brown's seat in Massachusetts.
Plus, in his December YouTube presentation of Obama's geographical path to victory, the president's campaign manager Jim Messina listed Arizona as the prime state Obama could pick up in 2012, from among those he lost in 2008. But if he is to have a chance, he needs a compelling Senate candidate to campaign with, not one who will run away from him on issues like health care or immigration.
It's no wonder Obama picked up the phone for Carmona, who is nothing if not compelling.