Protesters Jill Henderson, right, and Keith Van Heyningen stand on a street corner waiting for the first lady Michelle Obama to arrive at the Tucson Convention Center on April 30. (A.E. Araiza/Arizona Daily Star/AP)

Can President Obama win in Arizona this fall?

It’s a question of considerable debate among top strategists for both parties. And the answer is not insignificant when it comes to the electoral map, either. Arizona will award 11 electoral votes in November, the largest prize of any of the southwestern states — including Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado — expected to be seriously contested this fall.

There’s symbolic significance to the question of competitiveness in Arizona, too. This is the state where Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed the nation’s most stringent immigration law, a piece of legislation that has turned Arizona into a national battleground over the issue. (The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the law’s legality this summer.)

“It is pretty simple,” said John Anzalone, the pollster for former U.S. surgeon general Richard Carmona (D), who is running for the Arizona Senate seat. “It is in play. It is real.”

Not so, according to GOP pollster Glen Bolger, who has worked extensively in the state. “The Democrats claiming they will win Arizona is similar to Republicans claiming we will win one of the three Pacific Coast states,” said Bolger. “It’s nice to imagine, but the voters of Arizona are very negative to Obama.”

So, what’s the real answer? That depends how much stock you put in Arizona’s political history.

No Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1996 has carried Arizona. In winning, Clinton received 46.5 percent of the vote against former Kansas senator Bob Dole (R), which looks like something close to the ceiling for a Democrat in the state. The last three Democratic presidential nominees — Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 — got 45 percent, 44 percent and 45 percent of the vote, respectively, a remarkably consistent showing that suggests Democrats may be capped around that number. (Also worth noting: In a 2002 open-seat governor’s race, Democrat Janet Napolitano won with 46.2 percent; she did take 63 percent in a non-competitive general election four years later.)

Democrats — from the White House on down — insist that history is an imperfect guide when it comes to predicting the competitiveness of Arizona, because of the rapidly growing Latino population.

According to the 2010 Census, three in 10 Arizonans are Latino, up from roughly 25 percent of the state’s population 10 years ago. In both 2004 and 2008, the Democratic presidential nominee won the Hispanic vote convincingly — Kerry by 18 points, Obama by 15 — but there simply weren’t enough Latinos to counter the strong margins the Republican nominee enjoyed among white voters.

The growth among the Latino population — along with the presence of Carmona, who is Hispanic, and outrage within the community over Brewer’s immigration law — makes Democrats optimistic that 2012 will be different.

Democrats are also banking on moderate white Republicans — particularly women — being turned off by the conservative direction Brewer has taken the state, highlighted most recently by her signing a bill that would effectively defund Planned Parenthood.

“Arizona is a moderate state that’s been hijacked by an increasingly extreme Republican Party,” said Jason Ralston, a Democratic media consultant who has worked for former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D), among others. “In the process, they are turning off white moderates. There is a real opening for the president and Democrats to win moderates while expanding our performance with Hispanic voters.”

Frank Costanzo, a longtime Democratic operative in the southwest who managed former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential primary campaign in Arizona, is less optimistic than others in his party about Obama’s chances.

While Costanzo agrees that Latino turnout should be high, he believes presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith will offset much of those gains, given the large Latter-day Saints population in the state. (The census does not ask for religious affiliation; most informed observers peg Mormons as roughly 5 percent of Arizona’s population.)

“Carmona’s race would be the key to bringing out marginal voters who might support Obama,” conceded Costanzo. “However, those will most likely be Hispanic voters in southern Arizona and will not be enough to offset the large LDS population in the state, especially the East Valley and the Scottsdale area, and rural conservatives who will support Romney.” (Bolger dismisses the idea of Carmona helping Obama with Hispanics. “There is no such thing as reverse coattails,” he said.)

The competing theories of competitiveness in Arizona will get an early test next month in a June 12 special election for the seat held by Giffords, who resigned from office earlier this year as she continues to recover from an assassination attempt in 2011. The southern-Arizona 8th district is a swing seat, with both parties acknowledging the race will be close.

A Democratic victory would likely embolden both Obama and Carmona. A defeat would be further evidence for Republicans that winning Arizona this fall is a pipe dream for the president.

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