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McCain Ascension Sparks Arizona GOP Unity

With home-state Sen. John McCain having officially accepted the GOP presidential nomination in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday, Arizona Republicans are energized — and looking to the top of the ticket to heal old intraparty wounds and lift their downballot candidates.

Arizona Republican Party Chairman Randy Pullen was candid about a long-standing feud within the state GOP, which found him and his supporters at odds with McCain and his, primarily over immigration policy. But in an interview last week, Pullen said both sides have worked to successfully bridge that divide, and Arizona Republicans are hoping to translate McCain’s expected success on the ballot at home this fall into a 3-point to 4-point bump for GOP House candidates running in key races.

“We’re in very good shape in Arizona, better than the last poll that you heard about,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) told a breakfast gathering of Arizona and Nevada delegates last week at a St. Paul hotel. “Even if John McCain wins, by, let’s say, 10 points, he could make about a 3-point difference for some of our Congressional candidates.”

Some polls have shown McCain’s lead over Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in the 5-point to 10-point range — smaller than expected in some circles. Kyl said McCain’s lead at home is solid but declined to reveal the margin, although Pullen said he has seen internal Republican numbers and described McCain’s lead as being in the 15-point to 20-point range.

On the heels of McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, accepting the nomination for president and vice president, Arizona Republicans were excited and optimistic about their prospects for victory this fall. But they were also realistic, acknowledging that Democratic incumbents running in the 5th and 8th districts would be tough to beat, and they conceded that the open 1st district would be tough to hold.

“Having John McCain head the ticket will help all our candidates in the state. But it can only go so far,” said Joe Abate, 62, a Phoenix attorney and convention delegate. “But let’s face it, the [Democratic] incumbents … they’re both very tough opponents, so it’s an uphill battle.”

The incumbents Abate referred to were freshman Reps. Harry Mitchell, who is running for re-election in the Phoenix-area 5th district, and Gabrielle Giffords, who is seeking a second term in the Tucson-area 8th district. Both districts lean Republican but were flipped by the Democrats in 2006.

Former Maricopa County Treasurer David Schweikert last week won a hard-fought Republican primary for the right to take on Mitchell, and state Senate President Tim Bee is the GOP nominee against Giffords. In the open-seat 1st district race, former state Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D) is taking on anti-tax activist Sydney Hay (R).

Arizona Republicans credit Democratic gains in Arizona to the Democrats fielding good candidates. But more than that, they blame their own intraparty squabbling. In the past few years, the state party unofficially divided itself into two camps over a disagreement about how to address illegal immigration.

The McCain wing favored a comprehensive approach that included stronger enforcement but allowed for a path to legalization for illegal immigrants — the Senator has since backed away from his support for a path to legalization. The Pullen wing favored an enforcement-first approach.

When Pullen took the helm of the state party in January 2007 after narrowly defeating a candidate favored by the McCain camp in a contentious vote, business-minded Republicans went fleeing for the exits, believing that the party had been taken over by extremists.

But Pullen said both sides have since come together.

Pullen said there has been compromise on the immigration issue. And he said an effort was made to ensure that the Arizona delegation to the Republican National Convention was made up of conservatives, moderates, business-minded Republicans and others who make up the GOP coalition in the Grand Canyon State.

“There was a lot of strife within the party. And I’ve been a very public, verbal critic of some of Sen. McCain’s positions,” Pullen said in an interview last week in St. Paul. “But there was always a level of respect that was there that never went away. … There are still some strifes here and there at a lower level. But I think in Arizona the Republican Party is united.”

Democrats dispute GOP claims that McCain will boost Republican Congressional candidates in Arizona on Nov. 4.

Democratic strategists in Washington, D.C., say Arizonans have a history of splitting their ticket and evaluating each candidate on his or her own merits. Democratic strategists in Arizona contend McCain is simply not as popular at home as he used to be.

“I find it hard to believe that McCain will have much, if any, downticket effect,” Arizona Democratic Party spokeswoman Emily DeRose said. “We haven’t seen any evidence that he will campaign for any candidates here, other than himself.”