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National Democrats Eye Arizona Senate Clash

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Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona has a unique biography and served under a Republican president. National Democrats hope to use his moderate record to appeal to independent voters in Arizona, who make up about a third of the state's voting population.

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A high school dropout from a poor Hispanic family in Harlem, Carmona enlisted in the Army in 1967 and served in Vietnam. Over the next 12 years, he earned a GED diploma, two Purple Hearts, a bachelor’s degree and a medical degree.

After medical school, Carmona worked as both a trauma surgeon and a SWAT team leader. In 1992, he was serving as Pima County deputy sheriff and rescued someone stranded on a cliff by rappelling from a helicopter. And that’s just one of his career adventures. Seven years later, a bullet grazed his skull when he stumbled on a gunfight after a traffic accident. He fired back, killing one of the drivers who had shot at him.

Carmona served in the Bush administration from 2002 to 2006 and later claimed he had been constantly at odds with Bush’s government in clashes about climate change, stem-cell research and abstinence education. Carmona admitted he’d been “quite politically naive” when he arrived in Washington.

Bivens has spent his career in legal and political circles. He led the Arizona State Bar Association and is a former director of Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona.

Over the past decade Bivens has been a diligent political donor, giving generously to Democratic House and Senate candidates, some of whom have endorsed him in his current campaign. 

Former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who is making a forceful run to return to Congress, is backing Bivens. She said Democrats should consider him the candidate “we all need to rally around right now.” Former Rep. Harry Mitchell and former Senate candidate Jim Pederson, another former state party chairman, are also backing Bivens.

But Carmona’s team plans to roll out local endorsements of his own as the nascent campaign gets off the ground.  On Monday night the campaign announced Carmona has the backing of former Sen. Dennis DeConcini, the last Arizona Democrat to hold a Senate seat. He said in a statement that Carmona has “independent judgment and the strength to do the right thing, even when that’s not popular.”

The budding Carmona team boasts adviser Rodd McLeod, who served as Giffords’ campaign manager. Carmona sought out McLeod with questions about running before making the decision. McLeod told Roll Call he thinks Carmona is in a strong position in the race because of a “compelling personal narrative and his strong appeal to independent voters.”

An Arizona Democratic strategist said Carmona topping the ballot could help boost turnout among Hispanic voters, helping the party and Obama’s re-election effort.

Bivens called it “a perfect storm a brew” for Democrats to win the seat, but Roll Call Politics rates the race Likely Republican.

Republicans hold the governorship and both chambers of the Legislature, including a supermajority in the state Senate. Both Senators are Republican, and the GOP outnumbers Democrats five to three in the House delegation.

To keep it competitive, national Democrats are counting on Carmona as the candidate who can best appeal to Arizonans not affiliated with a party — about one-third of the state’s voting population.

A party strategist summed up the thinking: “Washington Democrats don’t believe Don Bivens can win the general election, but they believe Carmona can.”

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