Right Time for Sargent?

Look out, McCain. There's a woman after you.

On the other end of the telephone that Ferd Haverly's holding, there's a photographer who wants some time with Haverly's boss, U.S. Senate hopeful Claire Sargent. As press secretary, Haverly knows it is his job to find and maintain the proper balance between cooperation and circumspection.

He knows that for Sargent to have a chance against well-financed Republican incumbent John McCain, she needs all the free media she can get. On the other hand, Haverly understands that every photo opportunity also carries some risk. And Haverly, who in real life is the publisher of the little left-wing-activist newspaper The Current, wants as much control as possible.

"I'm not going to let him anywhere near her house," he says, cradling the receiver. "Did you see that story in the [Arizona] Business Gazette? I don't want her standing in front of a baby grand again--gawd, that was awful. They wrote that they vacation in Europe, that they don't stay anyplace without room service."

In the photographs that accompanied the Business Gazette story, Sargent was photographed with her husband, an Arizona Public Service Company executive, in their Central Avenue condominium, standing on hardwood floors in front of the Steinway and tightly packed bookcases. Haverly prefers to have his candidate perceived as something other than a handsomely attired upper-middle-class woman with fresh-cut flowers on her piano and original oil paintings on her walls. To defeat McCain, Sargent must register on the electorate's collective consciousness as an agent of change, and so her campaign must find a way to exploit her Otherness. Pictures of a nice lady smiling out from genteel circumstances won't be helpful in establishing a populist persona.

Neither will having a candidate who is likely to say whatever pops into her head, and who, without irony, will quote Woody Allen to a reporter. Claire Sargent is capable of announcing support for a national health plan she's unable to describe. After flying off to Washington, D.C., to "grovel"--that's her word--for money from political action committees, she announces that campaign reform is among her highest priorities. Based on results of the September 8 primary, she seems to do better the less she campaigns.

And people at Sargent's campaign headquarters have learned you cannot control this candidate, you can only hope to contain her. It doesn't matter what she's supposed to say. She says what she says. Sometimes it works.

Last week, at a D.C. fund raiser, Sargent answered a question about whether gender should be a factor by saying, "I think it's about time we voted for senators with breasts. We've been voting for boobs long enough." The national media latched onto it, much to her campaign staff's delight.

Her candor has worked for her locally, as well. Michael Walter, an unpaid volunteer on the Sargent campaign, says he decided to work for her after she supplied him with a refreshingly blunt answer.

"I asked her what her stand on abortion was," Walter recalls. "She looked me in the eye and said, 'If you want one, get one.'"

A lot of mainstream Democrats, however, bemoan Sargent's victory over Truman Spangrud in the September 8 primary. They say it's a shame that a real opportunity to defeat the incumbent has been blown on such a lightweight, someone whom one leading Democrat even calls the "Ev Mecham of the left."

"She's liable to say anything, to do anything," the prominent Democrat sighs. "And she's way liberal. She's bright and she's funny, but she's a loose cannon."

Of course, Sargent won her primary race without much help from the Democratic establishment, and she doesn't seem to need them now.

For all their gnashing of teeth, she's the nominee, the only Democrat with a chance to unseat John McCain.

Former POW McCain seemed vulnerable after his conspicuous fealty to savings-and-loan bandit Charles Keating was revealed in 1989. But McCain apparently had enough money and name recognition to deter many "big-name" Democrats--people like Hattie Babbitt, Paul Eckstein, Janet Napolitano, Bill French and Frank Gordon--from making the Democratic primary. And the national GOP has deemed him worthy of rehabilitation. In May President George Bush attended a $1,500-a-plate fund raiser for McCain. In August Arizona's junior senator flew with Bush on Air Force One to the GOP's national convention in Houston. At the senator's behest, President Bush even granted a brief interview to a Valley radio station. While McCain was originally scheduled to deliver a short address early in the convention week, Bush allegedly was so impressed with the senator's speech that McCain's slot was extended and shifted to the climactic final evening.

In any other political year, it might be possible to dismiss Sargent's run for the U.S. Senate as quixotic. But in the wake of last October's Clarence Thomas confirmation-hearing side show at the Senate, 11 women have survived the primaries and are still in the running for Senate seats. Many pundits and talking heads view the viable candidacies of Democratic women such as Carol Moseley Braun in Illinois, Lynn Yeakel in Pennsylvania, and Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein in California as evidence of a "Year of the Woman."

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