This is far from a meaningless primary. Outlaw Joe is much more vulnerable in the primary because he has lost the support of the leadership of his own Republican party, leaving a rare opening for a challenger. Whoever wins the GOP primary will be the odds-on favorite in the November general election.
Once considered politically untouchable, Arpaio is holding on for dear life as hard-charging retired Mesa police commander Dan Saban closes in.
Saban, 48, is clearly the best man to lead the sheriff's office out of a snake pit of intrigue, senseless killings, flagrant abuse of police power, willful disregard of prisoners' constitutional rights, and astounding arrogance -- hallmarks of Joe Arpaio's three terms in office.
Saban has won an impressive array of supporters in a grassroots campaign that is suddenly raising serious campaign money in the wake of Senator John McCain's hearty endorsement. Saban took in $37,000 from June 1 through August 18, while Outlaw Joe collected $1,800.
But Arpaio already had a fat war chest that allowed him to spend more than $140,000 in the same period. Despite his heavy outlays, Outlaw Joe saw his support among Republicans slip from 71 percent in February to 53 percent by mid-August.
The poll was conducted just after Joe's SWAT team incinerated a puppy and laughed about it. That story embarrassed the Phoenix area from coast to coast and generated close to 3,000 letters and phone calls to New Times protesting the actions of the sheriff's goon squad.
The money Saban is raising in the final weeks of the campaign is still not enough to buy the television ads Arpaio can afford, but it just might be sufficient to pull off the biggest upset in Republican politics since Evan Mecham shocked Burton Barr in the 1986 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Along with McCain, the Maricopa County Republican Executive Guidance Committee has endorsed Saban. The committee represents thousands of Republican voters, and its decision is significant because this is the first time the party's brass hasn't backed Outlaw Joe over the years.
"The people are fed up with Arpaio, and it's time for a change in leadership. Dan Saban is the most qualified to be sheriff," says Bill Norton, Republican District 22 chairman and an REGC member.
Saban has also won the endorsements of all the major police unions and fraternal organizations in Maricopa County and across the state. These include organizations that represent just Arpaio's own employees -- which says loud and clear that a large number of those who work for Joe have no respect for him. Even the powerful Professional Firefighters of Arizona is backing Saban.
Tireless campaigning by groups like Mothers Against Arpaio has gotten the word out that Outlaw Joe's policies are costing the county tens of millions of dollars in legal settlements stemming from abuse inside the jails.
Believe it or not, even the Arizona Republic has had enough of Arpaio and has endorsed Saban in the primary. This endorsement is even more notable because Arpaio's son-in-law, Phil Boas, is the deputy editor of the mainstream daily's editorial pages.
As Saban gains more and more support from those who have carefully watched Arpaio's antics over the years, the incumbent is relying on television commercials to promote his tough-guy image to the public; his third-rate John Wayne impersonation works best on the boob tube.
Speaking of third-rate impersonations of the late Duke, President Bush may have taken a lesson from Arpaio with his frequent tough-guy struts around his Texas ranch. But the president has also distanced himself from Outlaw Joe -- even though Arpaio endorsed him over McCain in 2000.
Three months ago, Arpaio bragged to me that Bush was one of his strongest backers. But when the president was here in August, it was McCain and the law enforcement officials who despise Arpaio and are supporting Saban who shared the stage with Dubya during a Republican fete at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum.
Arpaio was out of town licking his wounds, one of which was from an assault by the conservative wing of the state Republican party that has branded him a traitor for supporting Democrat Janet Napolitano in the 2002 gubernatorial election.
With this avalanche of bad news cascading down on him, it's not surprising that Arpaio is terrified to debate Saban. Somebody might ask him why everybody with half a brain hates him. Plus, the much younger, smarter, quicker Saban --who is determined to restore the sheriff's office to respectability -- would make Arpaio look like the dumb-ass he is before every audience.