PHOENIX (AP) _ Arizona has been a friendly place for Republican presidential candidates for decades.
The state has voted for only one Democrat _ Bill Clinton in 1996 _ since Harry S. Truman. But heading into Tuesday's election, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore are locked in a close battle for Arizona's eight electoral votes.
``Arizonans are more and more independent voters. They vote more for the person than along party lines,'' said Arizona Sen. John McCain, who beat Bush in the state's Republican primary. ``It has gone from a rock ribbed Republican state to one that moves back and forth.''
Polling results have flip-flopped over the summer as voters try to decide between the Texas governor and the vice president.
In the most recent poll by KAET and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Telecommunication at Arizona State University, Bush led Gore among all registered voters 44 percent to 39 percent while Green Party candidate Ralph Nader had 4 percent, Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan 1 percent and 11 percent were still undecided.
The poll surveyed 629 registered voters Oct. 19-22, after the three presidential debates. The margin for error was 4 percentage points.
Among the 346 respondents considered to be most likely to vote, Bush had a larger lead _ 49 percent to 39 percent _ over Gore.
In September, Gore held a similar lead over Bush in the KAET poll.
Neither candidate has established strong momentum in Arizona, pollster Bruce Merrill said. ``It's kind of like one of those little balls with the snow in it and you shake it. One goes up, then the other.''
Merrill said he believes Gore has benefitted from the country's strong economy while Bush draws support from people who like his folksy mannerisms and are tired of the scandals surrounding the Clinton White House.
McCain said he believes Bush has an edge that the Gore campaign recognizes because neither party has been buying a lot of statewide advertising. If the state was really up for grabs, you'd see more Gore ads, he said. ``I'm sure they haven't given up but they're not investing''
Independents and undecided voters probably hold the key to victory, McCain said. ``The question is not only will they decide but will they turn out and vote?''
Many Arizona voters say they are still sifting through what they like and dislike about both candidates.
Robert Froehlke, a Republican from Scottsdale, said the debates showed Gore's strength with facts and figures while Bush came across as a likable guy who works well with people. ``I call that a draw. They both played to their strengths.''
Froehlke, a retired mutual fund executive and former secretary of the Army, said he disagrees with Bush's opposition to abortion and agrees with Gore that the federal budget surplus should not be used for a big tax cut. He'd prefer to see the money used to pay down the national debt.
``If I could be sure about that I might even vote for him,'' Froehlke said of Gore. ``But I worry about his spending plan.''
Froehlke said he'll vote for Bush because he abhors President Clinton's sex scandals and respects the Bush family, especially former first lady Barbara Bush.
Jerry Collins, a lifelong Democrat from Phoenix, gave Al Gore $500, but said Clinton fatigue is wearing her down.
``A lot of people associate Gore with Clinton,'' she said. ``That connection is there. I'm struggling with it.''
``I'm so tired of what you see in government anymore,'' said Collins, who owns an engineering consulting company. ``I'd like to see a better example set by our public figures.''
Collins said women have tended to support Gore more than Bush because of the vice president's support for abortion rights, respect for his wife, Tipper, and the emotional qualities they saw in the couple's kiss during the Democratic National Convention.
``Women want somebody who respects women's rights,'' she said.
Even so, Collins' vote isn't a sure thing for Gore.
``I've supported Gore financially, but when I get in the booth, I'm not sure what I'm going to do.''