Democrats bet on Hispanics in Arizona

Fernanda Santos / New York Times News Service /

TUCSON, Ariz. — The man who could be the first Latino to represent Arizona in the Senate, Richard Carmona, says he is not fooling himself. “I want to be realistic on the expectations,” he said last week at his office.

The 62-year-old, is an untested candidate of vast experiences with a made-for-Hollywood biography. He was a high school dropout born into poverty in New York City to Puerto Rican parents who struggled with alcoholism and drug abuse. He served in Vietnam, earning Bronze Stars, Purple Hearts and other combat decorations, and attended medical school before his eventual rise to surgeon general under President George W. Bush.

He is running for public office for the first time, challenging a six-term congressman, Jeff Flake, 49, a Republican. Both are vying for the seat held by another Republican, Sen. Jon Kyl, who is retiring. Though there is little reliable polling in the contest, both camps acknowledged that the race is closer than they expected in such a heavily Republican state.

Beyond the balance of power in the Senate — enough states are in play that Republicans could regain the majority — the race carries enormous significance for Arizona, whose shifts in demographics threaten to upend its role as a GOP stronghold.

Carmona was handpicked by President Barack Obama to run for the Senate because of his résumé and his ethnicity, which could help galvanize Latino voters. The Democratic Party then cleared the field for him, sparing him primary attacks but depriving him of the chance to test his skills before the big fight.

All along, Carmona has courted Latino voters. He released his second Spanish-language commercial Tuesday, which introduces him as “uno de nosotros” — one of us — while highlighting Flake’s vote against the Dream Act, which would have given certain immigrants brought to the country illegally as children a path to legalization.

Flake has begun to make his case to Latinos as well. He has started running his first Spanish-language ad on television and radio, trying to tap into whatever anti-Obama sentiment there is in that community by referring to Carmona as “el hombre de Obama” — Obama’s man.