Right Time for Sargent?

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

Though she says the terms "liberal" and "conservative" are no longer useful ways to describe political philosophy, Sargent's impulses are do-goodishly liberal. And despite the brave attempts of the rumpled, drowsy-looking Haverly to cast her as a woman of the people, she possesses an air of rarefied civility that might uncharitably be read as noblesse oblige. That observation would irritate Sargent, who insists that she is, before all else, "a democrat with a small 'd'" who bristles at what she perceives as the arrogance of Washington insiders.

"They're so insulated, and people who are around that all the time, the lobbyists, the people that need favors, they're there kowtowing to these people," she says. "They're treated like Caesar. I don't fit the mold of what these people's mindset of what a senator is. I never will. I'm not that kind of a person."

Nevertheless, Claire Sargent, the natural aristocrat, admits she is in politics because she can afford to be. There is little risk connected to her charge at this particular windmill. Her husband, Henry, is an executive with Pinnacle West Capital Corporation, the parent company of APS. His annual salary has been reported at more than $400,000 per year, but Claire was raised not to talk about how much money one makes. Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy were rich men who empathized with the underdog, she says.

She has not built a career of conquest. She is a self-described "community activist" able to move ahead with her life even if John McCain rolls over her like General Norman Schwarzkopf through Iraq.

"The other people who looked at this race and decided not to run, well, my circumstances are different than some of them," she says. "It's a bit riskier for them. There's a lot of people whose jobs would be in jeopardy, whose reputations would be in jeopardy, but I don't have to worry about anything like that. I can always go back to being Claire."

In a normal year, Sargent's fuzzy approach to issues, her lack of government experience, her gender and even her candor might all work against her. She admits that during the primary campaign she sometimes spoke before thinking, and that her command of details was not always sure.

"I want to tell everybody everything," Sargent says. "I'll probably still make the same mistakes in the general election. I've never done this before. This is really on-the-job training."

After she was criticized for being vague, she released a 31-page document that cited her positions on issues as diverse (and arguably irrelevant) as the decriminalization of marijuana (she's for it) and voluntary school prayer (she thinks it could be problematic). During the campaign, she told a crowd in Yuma that she was in favor of handgun control. Still, she got the local newspaper's endorsement, apparently because the editors liked her commitment to Arizona and were suspicious of her opponent's Washington connections.

Sargent knows some consider her rampant position-taking politically naive. Why take a public stand on an issue that could only be used against you?

"I think the reason I maybe overcompensate [on issues] is because I decided people would always know what I believed," she says. "I would be clear, and I would fight for what I stand for. I don't want people to think that I'm going to change my mind because someone disagrees with me."

A former Spangrud campaign worker points out that Sargent did better in rural areas of the state she neglected during the campaign. Part of her campaign handlers' strategy, he complains, was to bring Sargent late to forums and panels so she wouldn't have much of a chance to say much of anything. It is interesting to note that Sargent won her biggest victories in Cochise and Apache counties, areas where she hardly campaigned at all.

"We were in there five or six times," the Spangrud worker says, "and a lot of times she just barely made an appearance and she just killed us there. They were running a stealth campaign."

Marc O'Hara, Sargent's campaign manager, denies the campaign employed that strategy. He says his philosophy is "to let Claire be Claire." That means, he says, allowing her to talk to people, to engage them in conversations rather than having her spew rote answers. And that's how she campaigns, a tall woman plunging into crowds, often bending her neck down so her face is just inches from the face she is talking, or, more often, listening, to. She declares herself a "people person," and that's where she comes off best. Her laughter is genuine and easy; she enjoys it.

"That's why I love Marc," Sargent says. "He tells me, 'Do whatever you have to do, but be yourself.' That's the only way I can do it. That's why McCain thinks that he wants to debate me. And he will. But I'm not a debater. And I wasn't a budget expert. A senator has a staff to figure out what the details are. I have the big picture; I'll work out the details about how to get there."

Sargent says she found O'Hara, a 33-year-old San Franciscan, through her son, Gordon Hensley, an executive with the Bush-Quayle campaign. She says when she was thinking about getting into the race, she asked Hensley to suggest a consultant. He led her to Mark McKinnon, an Austin, Texas, political consultant who did some media work for her campaign. McKinnon in turn recommended O'Hara, whom he had worked with during Al Gore's 1984 campaign for the Senate.

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