Right Time for Sargent?

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

O'Hara, who joined Sargent's campaign in June, says he isn't concerned by the campaign's lack of support among traditional Democrats.

"I had dinner with Jim Rausch [campaign manager for District 6 congressional candidate Karan English]," O'Hara says, "and I asked him who held the record for pissing off the Democratic establishment. He said he did. I told him I was going to break it. And I did."

Since there is no huge political machine in Arizona, Sargent campaign aide Michael Walter says, someone like Doug Wead (English's GOP opponent) can show up and win a primary. And someone like Claire Sargent can stand a chance.

As unorthodox and raw as her campaign apparatus may be, Sargent's upset chances and fund-raising prospects improved after former governor Ev Mecham entered the race as an independent. She is hopeful that postprimary polls showing her trailing McCain by only ten points (and with Mecham holding onto 10 percent) will pry open some tight wallets.

Since the primary, she has been engaged in almost nonstop fund raising, making two trips to Washington to seek contributions from various political action committees. She says she'll have to raise between $800,000 and $1 million for the general election, and she expects McCain to outspend her by at least 3 to 1. (He spent $2,228,498 to put away Richard Kimball in 1986.) For the primary, Sargent raised about $80,000, with $20,000 of that in the form of loans from her personal funds.

She says she has contribution commitments from both the Women's Campaign Fund and Handgun Control PACs for support in the general election; during the primary, she got money and an endorsement from the National Women's Political Caucus and the National Organization for Women. Still, the national groups seem more impressed with Karan English's chances of winning than Sargent's--English isn't facing an incumbent who, in his last election, won with 60 percent of the vote. And Democrats have a slight edge in registration in the newly created District 6, while statewide there are nearly 100,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats.

Though Sargent says she personally has no trouble asking people for money--much of her community work involved asking people to open their checkbooks--sometimes the fund-raising part of the job is frustrating. As when, for instance, she receives a solicitation letter from Emily's List, the pro-choice organization to which Sargent has belonged for years and which, so far, has contributed no money to her campaign.

"It's supposed to be going the other way now," she remarks as she holds the letter gingerly between her fingers before dropping it in a waste basket. "I'm supposed to be asking them for money."

Jane Danowitz of the Women's Campaign Fund in Washington says her group has met with Sargent and is considering contributing to her campaign. "The reason that race is even credible is the Mecham factor," Danowitz says. "And because of the year, and because it's Arizona. I'll be honest with you: The English organization is far stronger. In any other year, in any other circumstances, Claire Sargent couldn't win."

But this year is different.

"This is a year when campaigns like hers, which are basically grassroots campaigns based on a choice-change message alone, seem to be successful," Danowitz says. "You have an incumbent who is vulnerable. You have someone like Mecham who will be a menace. Claire has the potential to pull the draw play, as it were. Let them feud, and she can move up the middle. A lot of factors have to come together for her to win, but it's not at all improbable."

In 1992, Danowitz says, strengths can become weaknesses. McCain's money--manifested in a nonstop barrage of radio and television ads since the primary--could backfire. Nowhere is Sargent's status as a true outsider more apparent than in her unsophisticated campaign. And though Arizona Democrats have been slow to coalesce behind her, Danowitz says they should be "smiling" over her victory over Spangrud. "She can beat McCain," she says. "He couldn't."

"I don't know whether it will make any difference whether she gets any money or not--if those people just go out and vote," Marcia Weeks says. "But looking at the new polls, where there's not that undecided factor, it appears that she will need to raise substantial money--unless there's an undercurrent there that just says, 'Hey, we're just voting for a woman.'"

And as one leading Democratic woman put it, we've been electing unqualified men for a long time.

"When you think about it, what does it take to run for the United States Senate?" Sargent asks. "I tell you, after being back in Washington, I'm overqualified."

She says her decision to enter the race had a lot to do with what she perceived as Spangrud's unelectability. While she admits she would have stepped aside for other, better-known candidates who wanted to run, she says her response to the general's candidacy was, "Truman who?"

"I think it was Woody Allen who said 95 percent of life is just showing up," she says. "I knew if I got into the race, I could change the dynamic, that good things might happen. It's a little like Bill Clinton. He got in the race when it looked like George Bush was invulnerable. Now he's ten points ahead in the polls."

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