Arizona governor's race targets independent voters

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX (AP) -- The Democrat promises not to raise taxes and even talks about lowering some. The Republican bills himself as a reformer of education.

The race for Arizona governor has created an odd mix of arguments in a state where recent gubernatorial contests were dominated by divisive issues like immigration. The shift away from hardline rhetoric and toward more nuanced positions marks an effort by both candidates to negate their opponents' key points as they court the growing bloc of independent voters in Arizona.

Republican Doug Ducey is casting himself as the front-runner, a tactic he used in the run-up to August's six-way GOP primary. The current state treasurer, Ducey touts his experience building the Cold Stone Creamery ice cream franchise into a nationwide company before selling it in 2007 and getting into politics. He promises to bring a businessman's approach to state government, eliminating wasteful spending while recruiting businesses to move to the state. And he wants to drive the state's income tax rate way down, with a target of zero.

Democrat Fred DuVal has made restoring education funding the mantra of his campaign. A former aide to Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt in the 1970s and 1980s, he later served in President Bill Clinton's administration and was appointed by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano to the state university Board of Regents. The Tucson native also worked in private business and as a lobbyist - a background that has become the centerpiece of attack ads by Republican groups.

Ducey has worked to take the wind out of DuVal's education focus by highlighting his own plan to eliminate waste in schools and redirect money from administration to classroom spending. And he's benefited from outside ads that highlight his education agenda.

The two faced off in five debates in recent weeks as they tried to lay out their plans for the state, leading to sharp exchanges over their competing visions. DuVal went after Ducey for his plan to eventually eliminate the state income tax while dealing with a looming state revenue shortfall.

"The notion that on top of the budget deficit that you could withdraw 40 percent of the state's budget and still fund health care, corrections and education is tooth-fairy math," DuVal said at a debate last month.

Ducey has maintained that his business experience gives him a leg up over DuVal in dealing with the budget shortfall while continuing Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's effort to position the state for growth through tax cuts.

"Our state has assets, and I'm going to look at the budget one fiscal year at a time," Ducey said. "I would say that everything's on the table except education."

Mainly gone from the general election race is the heated debate over immigration that was a highlight of the Republican primary as the six candidates ran to the right to appease the strident GOP primary base. Ducey himself called for deploying National Guard troops along the Mexican border and said he'd use satellites to track illegal border crossers, despite the fact there are no satellites under state control.

Arizona has not had a statewide elected official who was a Democrat for four years. Democrat Janet Napolitano, who left office in 2009 to join the Obama administration, was the last Democratic governor.

Now, Republicans are trying to maintain that seat in a state that leans GOP but has a growing Hispanic population that primarily supports Democrats. The state has also been hammered by the recession and its national reputation hurt by divisive GOP-backed laws that cracked down on illegal immigration and angered gay-rights supporters.

Reliable polling is non-existent in Arizona, but backers of both candidates are pouring money into the race. Campaign finance filings show Republican-aligned groups backing Ducey have spent $5 million as of Tuesday, and those backing DuVal just over $1 million. The candidates themselves show about $1 million in general election income each, although the most recent filing is several months old.

The problem looming for both candidates is a massive budget deficit projected for next year and beyond, along with a state Supreme Court ruling that found the Republican-controlled Legislature illegally underfunded schools during the recession. That ruling has led to an order to pay K-12 schools $1.5 billion over the coming four years, and a judge is considering whether another $1 billion in back payments are owed. The budget deficit for the current and upcoming budget year is projected to be $1.5 billion, more than 15 percent of general fund spending.

Neither has given solid details of how they'll address that looming deficit and still meet their tax-cutting promises.

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