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Arizona primary following frenzied weekend rallies

March 22, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) — After a frenzied weekend of raucous campaign rallies across the state, it’s finally election day. Arizona voters go to the polls in the presidential preference election Tuesday.

Will establishment Republicans trying to halt businessman Donald Trump’s ride to the party nomination be able to slow him down in Arizona? And will former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton be able to stave off populist support for fellow Democrat Bernie Sanders to continue her path to the nomination?

Trump has made Arizona a focus of his campaign since last summer, when a massive Phoenix rally showed his strength among party grassroots voters, much to the dismay of the traditional party leaders. He has focused on border security issues that are perennial vote-getters among conservatives in the state to help boost his national campaign.

But he’ll be facing voters for the first time in a slimmed-down field of candidates that doesn’t include Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and instead puts him head-to-head with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for those border-hawk voters. For his part, Cruz toured the border Friday with former candidates Carly Fiorina and Rick Perry in a last-minute bid for votes.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich largely focused on Utah in his upstart effort to derail Trump’s candidacy in the weekend leading up to Tuesday’s primary, essentially leaving Cruz and Trump to slug it out in Arizona for the win.

Whoever gets the majority of Arizona’s Republican votes Tuesday controls all the state’s GOP delegates, at least through the first vote at July’s party convention.

The only major poll in the state shows Trump well in the lead, but it was taken before Rubio’s exit last Tuesday. But the survey conducted March 7-11 by longtime Arizona pollster Bruce Merrill showed nearly a third of voters remained undecided. Already, about half of Maricopa County voters who took out early ballots had returned them, limiting the effectiveness of last-minute campaigning.

The intensity of Trump’s weekend political rallies demonstrated how much he has stirred things up. He drew large crowds of supporters, and protesters blocked a main road leading to a Fountain Hills event where Trump appeared with Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former Gov. Jan Brewer. In Tucson later that day, a man in the crowd punched a protester, and demonstrators heckled Trump backers as they left the event.

Clinton had a healthy lead over Sanders, but the poll showed a large number of undecided voters. Sanders has held a series of rallies across the state in the week leading up to Tuesday, and he’s drawn exceptionally large crowds. He also visited the Navajo Nation in a bid for tribal votes and boldly called out Arpaio over his immigration policies. Sanders also toured the border in Nogales on Saturday.

Sanders faces an uphill battle nationally as Clinton is more than two-thirds of the way to grabbing the 2,383 delegates she needs to clinch the nomination. She has strong backing from a large number of Democratic elected officials in the state and a majority of the superdelegates.

Clinton held a rally Monday in Phoenix after former President Bill Clinton was here over the weekend. Among those who turned out were former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who became a leading national gun-control advocate after being shot in the head five years ago. Giffords introduced Clinton at the event Monday, telling the crowd that she struggles to speak following her injuries, but “come January, I want to say these two words, ‘Madame President.’”

Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said his opponent’s endorsements from the establishment don’t have the sway they once might have.

“He’s gone up against the establishment in state after state, where we have notched double-digit victories,” Briggs said Thursday. “He’s clearly not the establishment’s candidate. I think that’s a big part of the appeal.”

Arizona Republican Party Chairman Robert Graham views Trump as the odds-on leader, although the state party has steadfastly avoided backing any GOP candidate in the presidential race. But he said Arizona’s closed primary could make a difference.

“Trump has significant momentum in the state, and I think there is a high likelihood he might pull it off here,” Graham said. “But Cruz is a tough guy to ever count out because the one dynamic that is significant is the closed presidential primary here, and that’s in favor of Ted Cruz.”

Update hourly