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Sargent acknowledges the importance of timing to her campaign. To beat McCain, she says, everything will have to "break right." And so far it has, sweeping her up in the Zeitgeist.
"I am the right person, at this time, to be running against John McCain," she says. "Not last year, not next year, not six years from now. But I feel like I am the person for today who needs to be running, that I am the perfect person to run against him. It has to do with the timing, with the times. It has to do with me being a woman, being the age I am. I just think that it's going to work. There's something that's going on in America."
In a normal year, the 58-year-old Sargent probably wouldn't have gotten past retired Air Force general Spangrud in the primary. Spangrud, brother of prominent Democrat Marcia Weeks, had a year's head start and the backing of most of the old-line Democratic establishment. Only two of the state's daily newspapers--the Scottsdale Progress and the Yuma Daily Sun--endorsed Sargent. And Spangrud outspent her almost 2 to 1.
With his career military service and air of quiet competence, Spangrud was seen by many as the perfect foil to McCain. On the stump, he was well-spoken and detail-oriented, while Sargent often seemed scattered and vague. While Sargent's campaign organization largely comprised amateurs who'd never worked for a candidate before, Spangrud's seemed well-organized, particularly in rural and southern areas of the state.
And on Election Day, Sargent cleaned Spangrud's clock, outpolling him by nearly 30,000 votes statewide and beating him in every county. When the dust cleared, Claire Sargent was the Democrats' nominee by the near-landslide margin of more than 13 percent of the vote.
In the days after the September 8 primary, there was some residual antipathy. Throughout the campaign, the candidates hammered each other, with Sargent calling Spangrud an anachronistic opportunist and a "cold warrior looking through a rearview mirror at the status quo of yesterday" who is "joined at the hip with the military-industrial complex." Both said during the primary they would support the other in the general election, but Spangrud now says only that he is "considering" endorsing her. He is still upset over a tabloid attacking him as a carpetbagger that was mailed to voters in the Tucson area days before the election. He won't comment on Sargent's race against McCain.
On election night, Spangrud speculated that, in a race in which both candidates lacked enough money to build name recognition, voters defaulted to the woman. Sargent didn't win, he insisted, because of her grasp of the issues.
"There are six reasons why she won," another prominent Spangrud supporter says. "C-L-A-I-R-E."
Similarly, Marcia Weeks, Spangrud's sister and a longtime figure in the state's Democratic party who, as a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, is currently the highest-ranking elected woman in the state, says she believes Sargent's gender worked for her while her brother's name worked against him.
"I hate to say it, but in a race where neither candidate has the money to get their name out, it comes down to things like that," Weeks says. "And 'Truman Spangrud' isn't the easiest name. I think a lot of people, in this climate, would vote for the woman just to give her a chance, just to shake things up."
That sentiment irks Weeks, who says, "When you're a woman and you've been working the system and working hard to get elected, taking your defeats, taking your wins, and you say, 'God, they're actually voting for me because I'm a qualified candidate and I'm a woman,' what am I supposed to think when a woman is elected just because she's a woman?"
Janet Napolitano, a Phoenix attorney who had considered running against McCain, says she doesn't believe Sargent can be elected on the "gender bump" alone.
"I think Claire Sargent will get elected if she can show the voters she stands for change and if she can show the voters what the change is," Napolitano says, choosing her words carefully. "If, in the Year of the Woman, she can take advantage of [her gender], then I give her credit for it. But I also deeply admire and respect and look forward to the continuing careers of Arizona women who've come up through more traditional means."
Weeks, who urged her brother to run when it became apparent no big names were about to enter the Democratic primary, says she is frankly baffled by the result.
"We had ten times the better candidate, and ten times the better organization, and she still won," Weeks says. "You hate to think that people were voting on the basis of something as stupid as which candidate had the easier name, but I don't know how else you can explain it."
Sargent agrees her gender probably helped with voters unfamiliar with either candidate. But she's not apologizing.
She admits she is not as detail-oriented as Spangrud or as facile with figures. It's not an important issue for her, she says, because senators have staffs to write position papers and to study documents. "I'm not a budget technician," she said time and time again during the primary race, a mantra to which Spangrud developed an economical riposte: "But I am."