A hot primary season gets even hotter

In Arizona, one House candidate called party officials idiots. In Rhode Island, ad-makers turned a Senate hopeful into a political pinata.

And that’s just Republicans attacking Republicans ahead of Tuesday’s nine-state primary night, the busiest of the year.

For some candidates on the ballot, Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York among them, the primaries are a warm-up of sorts in advance of the fall re-election campaign and then a possible 2008 race for the White House.

For other successful politicians, they are a winnowing process.

That is the situation in Maryland, where Rep. Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and one-time head of the NAACP, are the best known among 18 contenders for the Democratic Senate nomination.

The primary winner will run against Michael Steele, the state’s lieutenant governor who is seeking to be the Senate’s only black Republican.

Republicans, facing the possibility of the loss of seats in several states, hope Steele can become their brightest star of the year, even though it has been more than a quarter-century since the GOP has won a Senate race in Maryland.

After Tuesday’s primary, the Democratic nominee “will be broke and without momentum facing a strong candidate with a message of empowerment that is resonating across Maryland,” said Dan Ronayne, spokesman for the Republican senatorial committee.

For the political parties, the week’s primaries represent another in a dwindling number of chances to influence the lineup for the November ballot, when the GOP’s continued control of the House and the Senate is at stake.

Hence, the controversy.

In a Tucson-area seat in Arizona, the National Republican Congressional Committee has run an ad supporting Steve Huffman, praising him as an advocate of lower taxes and a “common sense approach to immigration that puts security first.” Huffman is “the conservative choice,” said the commercial.

A recent poll showed Huffman trailing a former state lawmaker, Randy Graf.

Graf won 43 percent of the primary vote in an unsuccessful run against Rep. Jim Kolbe two years ago, but party officials have expressed concerns he may be too conservative to win the seat in November.

The decision by strategists in Washington to intervene did not impress Graf or the three other contenders for the nomination. They held a news conference to criticize the move.

“They’re idiots,” said one, former state party chairman Mike Hellon. He and the three other Republicans running said the GOP had split the party and they predicted Democrats would benefit.

Huffman’s campaign did not seem bothered.

“It’s made the choice more clear. The fact of the matter is Steve is the only Republican in the race who can win the general election,” said David Steumpfle, Huffman’s campaign manager.

Whether or not they benefit, Democrats appear to believe that Huffman would be the toughest Republican to beat in November. No sooner had the House Republican committee begin airing its ad supporting him than Democrats rolled out one of their own criticizing him.

It said Huffman’s tough-on-immigration claims were not true, and that he had skipped votes in the Arizona Legislature on new border technology and enforcement of immigration laws.

“If we can’t trust Huffman to show up for work, how can we trust him to protect us,” it asks.

The most prominent Democratic contenders are Gabrielle Giffords and Patty Weiss, a former television journalist.

Republicans intervened in Rhode Island, too, but went one step further than in Arizona.

With Sen. Lincoln Chafee (news, bio, voting record) struggling to fend off a primary challenge, the National Republican Senatorial Committee attacked his rival on television and in mass mailings. “Mayor Steve Laffey accepts Mexican ID cards that can threaten our security. Will he put our security at risk in the Senate?” asked one recent ad that has drawn criticism from Hispanic groups.

Ironically, Laffey’s views on numerous issues are more in the mainstream of the Republican Party than are Chafee’s. Laffey opposes abortion, favors making tax cuts permanent and supports the war in Iraq.

But as in Arizona, party strategists fear the loss of Chafee’s seat to the Democrats.

“Obviously Linc Chafee is the only one who can win in Rhode Island,” said Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, head of the GOP campaign committee. She said that if Laffey wins the primary, her organization will not spend any money to help him in the fall.

Delaware, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wisconsin also have primaries on Tuesday. The District of Columbia will select mayoral candidates.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press