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Why are Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney campaigning early in Arizona?

Beyond Iowa, beyond New Hampshire, beyond Nevada, South Carolina, and Florida, there’s the Arizona primary. Two Republican presidential candidates – former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota – campaigned in the state Wednesday, wooing voters and building an organization – even though Arizona has decided not to move its primary to an earlier spot on the GOP nominating calendar.

Why Arizona now? It’s possible that Arizona’s primary on Feb. 28, a week before Super Tuesday, still comes early enough to play a pivotal role in determining the Republican nominee. That could happen if, as some political analysts predict, the first group of nominating contests does not establish a clear leader.

Fresh off a solid performance in Monday’s nationally televised debate, Mr. Mitt Romney met with a group of business owners in Tucson and later participated in a town hall meeting in the Phoenix area. Meanwhile, Ms. Bachmann was in the state capital raising funds and wooing Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in hopes of securing the endorsement of the controversial immigration hardliner.

With few debates so far and with months before the first nominating contest in Iowa, it’s too early to say which presidential candidate might end up as Arizona’s favorite. The race in this conservative state, which boasts significant tea party influence, could come down to a showdown between Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has captured the lead in national polls after a late entry in the race, say some political observers.

Arizona may be a good match for Romney, in part because of the state’s substantial Mormon population, says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

That’s particularly true if candidate Jon Huntsman Jr., also a Mormon, bows out of contention, Mr. Sabato says. The former Utah governor has lagged in the polls.

Governor Perry, on the other hand, would benefit from Arizona’s tea party clout, Sabato says. But if Bachmann stays in the race for the long haul, she could split that vote with the Texas candidate, he adds.

Sabato, like some other political analysts, no longer sees Sarah Palin – who recently bought a house in Arizona – as a viable candidate. “She is unlikely to win the GOP nomination this late in the game,” he says of the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee.

Though the tea party is strong in parts of Arizona, such as Maricopa County, moderate Republicans also are active and could be play an important role in a statewide GOP primary, says political scientist Tom Volgy. He also notes that roughly one-third of Arizona voters are registered independents, and they are eligible to vote in the GOP primary.

“It may be a really interesting test to see whether someone like Romney would then be able to do well in the state, compared with Governor Perry or Michele Bachmann,” says Mr. Volgy, who teaches political science at the University of Arizona in Tucson and is a former Democratic mayor of that city.

“There’s a strong recognition, at least on Romney’s part, you can’t go that far to the right and be as viable in the general election,” Volgy says.

Romney’s and Bachmann’s visits to Arizona set the stage for continuing debate of issues close to Arizona’s heart that are also likely to strike a chord nationally. Among them: border security, a downed economy, and illegal immigration.

If candidates fail to handle with care highly volatile issues such as illegal immigration, offering sensible solutions, they could be seen as pandering to Arizonans, Volgy warns. “It could significantly backfire on them.”

On Wednesday, both Romney and Bachmann vowed to combat illegal immigration, saying they would build a border fence and take other steps, such as reducing in-state tuition programs for students who are in the country illegally.

Arizona had considered moving its primary to Jan. 31 to give the state a higher profile in the GOP nominating process, but Gov. Jan Brewer (R) decided against the controversial move. The Republican National Committee has tentatively approved a presidential debate in the state.

“Arizona will be a player in determining our nation’s next president,” the governor says in a statement. “Over the next 14 months, the candidates would be wise to meet with our voters and become familiar with our issues.”

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