TEMPE, Ariz. -- At a gritty American Legion post, Army Special Forces veteran Richard Carmona confides to a room full of voters that he's been running a "covert operation" this year: his campaign for U.S. Senate.
Indeed, the Arizona Democrat, who served as George W. Bush's surgeon general, has come out of nowhere to contend for a seat that was practically etched in the GOP column.
Polls show him in a dead heat against Rep. Jeff Flake, a tea party-backed Republican best known for his crusade against pork-barrel spending in Congress, and millions of dollars in outside money is suddenly flooding into the race.
As recently as the spring, President Barack Obama's campaign talked about this being the year Obama could capitalize on the surge in Hispanic voter registration and flip a state as red as a Sedona sunset. Arizona has seen 160,000 new Hispanics, who lean Democratic, added to its voter rolls since 2008. But Obama never made a play.
Now Carmona, the Spanish-speaking son of Puerto Rican immigrants, is in contention to do what Obama could not in two election cycles.
He is harnessing his up-by-his-bootstraps biography: A poor kid from Harlem and high school dropout who became a decorated Vietnam War veteran, SWAT team leader and the nation's 17th U.S. surgeon general. He is capitalizing on Arizona's changing demographics and tapping into anger over the state's anti-immigrant policies.
And Carmona, 62, is appealing to independents like Dick Anderson, who comprise a third of Arizona's electorate and will almost certainly swing the outcome of the Senate contest.
"I'm tired of the vitriol from the far right. They are going to ruin our country," said Anderson, 66, who like Carmona is a former Army medic who served in Vietnam. After hearing the candidate at the Tempe veterans hall, Anderson was certain he'd vote for Carmona, and so would his wife, a registered Republican.
Carmona's "open to ideas. He's willing to listen. He's willing to compromise. He doesn't say 'my way or the highway' like Flake."
Yet Carmona is still the underdog in his race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Jon Kyl. Republicans have a 6-point voter registration advantage over Democrats and control every statewide office and the Legislature. Carmona, who has lived in Tucson for nearly three decades, isn't well known in the Phoenix metro area, which includes Flake's district and where 64 percent of Arizona's population resides.
"We've got a great ground game, we have good support and we're right on the issues," Flake said in a phone interview from Salt Lake City, where he was attending a Mormon Church conference and raising money.
The last Democrat to win statewide office here was Janet Napolitano, who was narrowly elected governor in 2002 and won reelection in 2006. But she hailed from Phoenix and had been the sitting state attorney general at the time.
"There will be a wave of folks who will walk in the door and vote in the presidential race who have never heard of Carmona," Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) said in an interview. "It hurts him a lot."
Carmona's clandestine campaign strategy was revealed during his weekend swing through Maricopa County, a sprawling landscape of 12-lane freeways, strip malls and saguaro cactuses. Sporting a blue polo shirt and khakis, Carmona stopped at an "Amigos por Carmona" rally and a community center in Phoenix, an elementary school in affluent north Scottsdale, and the American Legion in Tempe, where on Wednesday night he'll stump with Bill Clinton on the Arizona State University campus.
"What we really wanted to do here is stay below the radar as long as we can. Quietly, through psychological ops, infiltration, and start taking away what [Flake] thinks is his," Carmona told 75 people at the veterans hall, in a speech peppered with military metaphors.
"We go in. We change the environment, and then your adversary wonders, 'How did they do that? What happened?'"
With Obama ceding the state to Mitt Romney, Carmona's battle with Flake is Arizona's marquee matchup. Carmona has forced conservatives to divert resources to what should have been a safe GOP seat and opened another unexpected path for Democrats to keep the Senate.
Even Republicans concede Carmona's life story is resonating.
When he was about 5 or 6, Carmona bounced around the homes of friends and relatives after his family was evicted. He constantly had toothaches as a boy because his family couldn't afford dental care.
His salvation was the Army. After completing his GED, he was accepted into the elite Special Forces and shipped off to Vietnam as a combat medic. In the fog of battle, he was shot or blown up twice -- he's not sure which -- earning him two Purple Hearts. Another bullet grazed his head in a 1999 shootout when Carmona was working as a county sheriff's deputy; Carmona shot the man dead.
"What people don't understand is it's not like TV," Carmona told POLITICO, recalling his brushes with death in Vietnam. "If you're in the middle of a firefight, shit is blowing up, bombs are going off. ... It's chaos."
In TV ads, Carmona and his allies have been painting Flake as anti-veteran. And at campaign stops, the former soldier tells voters Flake dismisses as an "entitlement" the GI Bill that helped him go to community college. Flake, the son of a Korean War vet, insists he has a strong record supporting veterans and called the GI Bill "a wonderful thing." Flake said he voted against a GI Bill for post-9/11 soldiers only because it included unrelated "extraneous spending."
While Flake isn't disputing Carmona's valor in Vietnam, he said the Democrat is guilty of glossing over other parts of his record.
Carmona successfully sued Tucson Medical Center over a contract dispute after he was hired to launch its trauma center. He resigned from running the Pima County health system after it plunged deeper into debt. And POLITICO reported that as surgeon general, Carmona's boss told House investigators he had threatened her -- an allegation he vehemently denies. Bush didn't ask him to stay on a second term, and Carmona later accused administration officials of trying to silence him on issues such as stem cell research and the health risk of secondhand smoke.
"It seems that there is a pattern of these jobs not ending well. It raises serious questions about his temperament," Flake said.
Flake, a fifth-generation Arizonan, hails from a politically connected family with deep roots in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was born in Snowflake, a rural ranching town named in part for his great-great grandfather, Mormon pioneer William Flake. His late uncle, Jake Flake, served as speaker of the Arizona House.
But Flake, 49, struggled to define Carmona early in the race. While Carmona cruised unopposed to the Democratic nomination, Flake was forced to fend off a fierce GOP primary challenge from businessman Wil Cardon, who spent $8 million of his own money attacking the congressman for working with Democrats on comprehensive immigration reform and his work decades ago as a lobbyist for a Namibian uranium mining operation with ties to Iran.
Immigration has figured prominently in the general election, too. Gov. Jan Brewer's tough anti-immigration law, known as SB 1070, has spawned a grass-roots movement aimed at registering eligible Hispanic voters throughout the state. As Carmona talked Medicare with a salt-and-pepper crowd at Phoenix's Sunnyslope Community Center, 250 Hispanic high school and college students rallied at a nearby union headquarters. They noshed on bagels and blueberry muffins before fanning out for a long day of door-to-door canvassing in the balmy Arizona weather.
The Arizona effort -- financed with $1.4 million from the hotel, restaurant and gaming union -- has already registered more than 31,000 new Hispanic voters since 2010, half of them since May. The registration push is sure to give Carmona a boost at the polls.
On the stump, he says he backs the DREAM Act for immigrant students that Flake opposed, and praises the abandoned McCain-Kennedy comprehensive immigration reform plan that included a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants already here. And he thumps Flake for once co-sponsoring the immigration overhaul, then adopting the GOP's "secure the border first" mantra.
Hispanics "are happy somebody is running who understands their culture, their language, their difficulties and their struggles to integrate into society," Carmona told POLITICO.
As soon he won his Aug. 28 primary, Flake was on the air attacking Carmona as a "rubber stamp" for Obama, who recruited him to run for the Senate. But at town halls, Carmona, a lifelong registered independent, plays up his relationships with Republicans.
He notes that George W. Bush nominated him to be the nation's top doctor and endearingly calls him his "old boss." In late 2005, he says Brewer, then Arizona's secretary of state, dropped by his Washington office and personally urged him to run as a Republican against Napolitano, the incumbent Democratic governor.
"I see good ideas on the Republican side as well as the Democratic side." Carmona told a crowd in a Scottsdale school gymnasium. "You have to return civility and statesmanship to governance. If you don't do that, it doesn't matter what portfolio of issue you're pushing, nothing is going to get done."
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