CHANDLER, Ariz. — They take conservatism seriously in Arizona, the state that launched native son Barry Goldwater on his way to the 1964 Republican presidential nomination and gave him the platform to found the modern conservative movement.
They also take seriously a top lesson of Goldwater's landslide loss in the general election against Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. In their hearts, they might have thought him right. But in their heads, they would rather have won.
That hunger to defeat an incumbent Democratic president — this time Barack Obama — drives Arizona Republicans and helps explain why Mitt Romney appears headed for an easy victory in the state's primary on Tuesday.
The former Massachusetts governor leads the field by comfortable margins in recent polls of likely primary voters. His lead is wide enough that he pulled out of the state after Wednesday's debate to focus his time on Michigan, where he's locked in a much closer contest with chief rival Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania.
Romney had the support of 38.8 percent of likely Arizona primary voters in an average of recent public polls compiled by the website realclearpolitics.com. Santorum trailed with 29.6 percent, followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 16.2 percent and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas with 8.4 percent.
Like Republicans in other states, voters in Arizona point to Romney's experience in business and status as a Washington outsider as key reasons they like him.
"He's the only candidate who has run something. Everyone else is a legislator," said Don Bennett, a retiree from Chandler.
And like voters in some states where Romney has won — such as New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada — they think he'd be a stronger challenger to Obama than the nearest alternative at the moment.
In Arizona, many like Santorum. But they fear he might be a bit too conservative, particularly on social issues such as abortion and contraception, to win.
Bennett, for example, said Santorum would cost the party swing votes. "They're going to focus on his social conservatism," he said. "They'll try to demonize him. I'm just not sure he could win the independents."
"I like him. He's a good family man," said Nancy Bowerman, an artist from Chandler. "I'm a born-again Christian. But I'm a little nervous about his feelings about abortion. It affects electability as far as women are concerned."
Primary voters by a 2-to-1 margin say finding a nominee who can defeat Obama is more important than finding a true conservative, according to an NBC-Marist poll. Even "very conservative" voters by a 3-to-2 margin say winning is more important.
Suzan Money, a real estate worker from Chandler, is among those very conservative primary voters. Undecided, she was weighing Gingrich, Romney and Santorum — with winning uppermost on her mind.
She likes Romney's business background but still questions his conservatism. "I don't totally trust him." she said. "I'm very conservative."
But the appeal to the more conservative Santorum is tempered by a concern that he might lead the party to defeat, "I like him a lot. He's more conservative," she said. "But I need electability. We have to beat Obama."
Obama's campaign aides say they think he could win Arizona itself in the general election regardless of who is the Republican nominee. They say changing demographics — more immigrants from Mexico and from California — make it more open to Democrats. Also, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 nominee, will not be on the ballot.
Polls indicate a Democratic win is possible.
The NBC-Marist poll shows that he would be close to any of the Republicans in an Arizona matchup: 40-45 percent against Romney; 42-45 percent against Santorum; 45-40 percent against Gingrich and 41-43 percent against Paul.
But only 38 percent of Arizona registered voters approve of the way Obama's doing his job. And his administration's legal fight against Arizona's anti-immigration law inflames anti-Obama feelings. By a 2-to-1 margin, Arizona voters disapprove of the way he's handling immigration.
The Obama campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Said Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican and frequent Obama critic: "President Obama will not have a chance in the state of Arizona."
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