Consider it an awkward coincidence: The final Republican debate before the Super Tuesday primary is taking place in Arizona, at the epicenter of the national immigration debate. When the remaining four candidates take the stage on Wednesday night, they will inevitably be asked about the state’s tough crackdown on illegal immigration, which has defined the local Republican Party in recent years, buoyed the hopes of local Democrats and been condemned by, among others, the U.S. Department of Justice. The candidates will have to answer carefully.
Though the GOP base in Arizona is still roiled by the influx of undocumented immigrants into the state, the Obama campaign is betting that a backlash led by the growing Latino community can turn Arizona into a new presidential battleground in 2012. This is the subject of my cover story in the new issue of TIME, available online to subscribers Thursday and on newsstands Friday. For the cover, photographer Marco Grob traveled to Arizona to shoot an amazing gallery of portraits of Latino voters .
In the coming weeks, the Obama campaign will open its fourth field office in Arizona, a state no Democrat has won since Bill Clinton and which native-son John McCain won in 2008 by nine points. The location of the office, a storefront on Phoenix’s majority-Latino west side, matters. Just a few months ago, it was used by campaign volunteers for Daniel Valenzuela, a local firefighter, who mounted an underdog bid for the City Council on the theory that he could turn out Latino voters who don’t normally vote. He won big in 2011, as did the new Democratic mayor in Phoenix, Greg Stanton.
A group of young people calling themselves “Team Awesome” knocked on 72,000 doors in the city to support Valenzuela’s bid. They increased off-year turnout among the Latino community by 480%, more than delivering Valenzuela’s margin of victory. “There is a ripple effect that has the city and the county and the state of Arizona looking at the way they approach politics,” says Joseph Larios, 29, a community organizer now working with the state Democratic Party who helped Valenzuela develop his strategy. “It’s impossible to say going after low-propensity Latino voters doesn’t matter based on what happened.”
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