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THE GOP MENUNIBBLE ON THE GOVERNOR WANNA-BES AND SEE IF ANY STAY DOWN

It might surprise you to find out that choosing a Republican candidate for governor is a lot like ordering dinner.

The political menu, compiled by young GOP campaign staffers, reads this way:

Sam Steiger: "He's a lot like Mexican food, spicy and substantial. But he'll upset your stomach in the long run."

Evan Mecham: "Thanksgiving leftovers. You know how it is, you can never seem to get rid of the turkey."

Fred Koory: "Jell-O. Sweet and pleasant as a side dish, but way too insubstantial to be a main course."

Fife Symington: "Vanilla ice cream. Cold and bland."
Bob Barnes: "He's not even on the dinner menu. More like breakfast. Froot Loops maybe. Or some kind of flake."

Hmmm. Makes you think about eating Democratic this year, doesn't it?
While the candidates might be distressed to learn, with barely a week to go before the September 11 primary election, that their campaign workers are chuckling over food metaphors instead of pounding the pavement to corral supporters, this bit of campaign memorabilia says a great deal about the state of Republican gubernatorial politics. There are a lot of choices, but none of them is especially appetizing.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Only a scant few months ago pundits and public-pulse watchers were rubbing their hands in happy anticipation of a political bloodfeast. With this cast of hopefuls, a rollicking, fire-and-brimstone showdown had to be in the offing.

A passionless millionaire developer, an ousted governor hungry for political redemption, a grizzled maverick ex- congressman with a checkered past, a friendly but oafish county bureaucrat and an enigmatic nutty professor, all competing for a chance to become the first Republican governor to sit a full term since 1974. For those still suffering withdrawal pangs from the gaffe-a-day turmoil and bitter rhetoric of the thirteen-month Mecham era, this campaign would be a fix made to order.

When the dust settled from the collision of this diverse quintet, the GOP would surely have one man who had successfully run the gauntlet, someone toughened, proven and ready to go forth and do battle with the Democratic menace, Terry Goddard.

It never happened. Sure, the candidates went through the motions-- there were the expected allegations about Steiger's wild-and-woolly history, and Symington and Mecham, representing opposite social poles, sparred cautiously at local forums and debates. But unbelievably, the campaign trail remained a relatively placid place all summer, and the candidates, who have spent countless hours and millions of dollars maneuvering for blocs of GOP turf, have failed to convince half the Republican electorate that any one of them is worth voting for.

As September breaks, some polls show nearly 50 percent of Arizona Republicans are still "undecided," a staggering figure which by itself transforms all polls into inherently worthless compilations of jumbled numbers and clears the way for an anything-goes primary circus. This fact hasn't elicited much happiness in Republican ranks. Steiger and Symington both have expressed frustration over their apparent inability to solidify their positions and break away from the pack. Koory's campaign is as it has always been, dead in the water. And Barnes is clinging to his solid percent support.

But who is that, over there, grinning that familiar grin? It's Evan Mecham, veteran of six gubernatorial races, and he has found plenty of reasons to be smiling. No one is openly predicting victory for Mecham just yet, but insiders are nervously eyeing the horizon over Glendale way, because it is clear that something there is stirring, something most thought had been put to rest long ago.

Mecham has been steadily gaining in the polls this summer, overtaking Steiger and moving into second place behind Symington. He is touting a new legitimacy, earned when he survived a July legal challenge to his campaign, and enjoying the warm electoral climate, which is providing perfect weather for yet another miraculous political comeback.

His campaign comes on the heels of a large, unpopular tax hike--passed after months of inactivity by a contemptible, lethargic legislature--and in an election year when activist groups in record number are scrambling to by-pass lawmakers all together and pass their own laws through ballot initiatives. Voters seem to be even more disgusted than usual with their elected leaders, an attitude which serves as a perfect breeding ground for Mecham's antiestablishment, throw-the-bums-out rhetoric. But most of all, there is that huge bloc of undecided voters, those who don't know or don't care, who threaten to resurrect Evan Mecham, once again, from the political grave.

"Undecideds" often never do decide, and so stay home on election day. A small turnout would be a Mecham boon, as his dedicated hard-core followers will find a way to make it to the polls, even if they have to crawl through broken glass. In a five-way race, where significant blocs of the vote are fragmented among at least four viable candidates, this devoted squadron of Mecham Militia could be enough to capture another surprise win for the ex-governor.

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Darrin Hostetler