The six Republicans running for the right to oppose Democratic Rep. Harry Mitchell face a difficult task.
All the contenders in Arizona's 5th Congressional District have presented themselves as old-school, fiscally conservative Republicans. To a candidate, they call for balancing the federal budget, lowering taxes, curtailing government spending and securing the U.S.-Mexico border.
All of which, at first glance, makes the group of political aspirants a homogeneous set of interchangeable office-seekers. That's the challenge.
Since there are no vast ideological chasms that naturally separate them from one another, each has tried to find a unique way to step away from the crowd.
Mike O'Neil, president of the Tempe public opinion firm O'Neil Associates, said the candidates must find important nuisances in their personal messages or biographies.
He noted that in 1982, a Republican newcomer focused on his military background to win the former 1st District, which takes in most of the current 5th District. That candidate was John McCain, who's now the state's senior senator and the presumptive Republican nominee for president.
"It's either what you stand for or who you are," O'Neil said. "It's kind of what McCain is trying to argue right now. He doesn't do so well on the national stand in terms of message, so he turns the issue to biography."
The half dozen GOP candidates trying to unseat Mitchell are employing variations of the "message or biography" theme.
Candidate Mark Anderson is concentrating on his message, specifically concerning energy and economic policy.
"Energy policy is the top issue, because I go door-to-door - and I've been going door-to-door every night meeting people - and that's the thing they're concern about, the gas prices and dependence on foreign oil," Anderson said.
Since energy policy largely is handled at the federal level rather than the state level, Anderson's experience with the issue was limited during his tenure in the Arizona Legislature. He has been researching it in preparation for serving in Congress, he said.
Anderson envisions a two-phase approach. In the short term, the United States must allow increased drilling in Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico to increase domestic production, and permit more nuclear energy production.
In the long term, the federal government should invest in universities and private-sector interests that research alternate energy sources.
"It seems like we're close on some of these things, with certain kinds of fuels and certain kinds of batteries, but we're just not there yet. With investment in technology, we could get ourselves off the oil wagon, so to speak," Anderson said.
As a result of lessening the country's dependence on foreign oil, the nation's economic standing will improve, he said. Anderson plans to post his 10-point energy plan on his campaign Web site shortly, he said.
SUSAN BITTER SMITH
Susan Bitter Smith emphasizes her views on energy and water policy.
She has taken an aggressive stance toward increasing domestic oil production by allowing more drilling in "environmentally responsible" ways, which she said, would wean the U.S. from foreign suppliers.
"That is a reality that we have to face and that Congress has to do something about, which is allowing more domestic oil supplies to be reached which will change our positioning in the market," she said.
Nuclear power also should be expanded, while alternative energy, such as wind, solar and natural gas, should be developed, she said.
She also would bring her experience with water policy. Among other matters, Arizona residents should have greater priority for Colorado River water, said Bitter Smith, who is serving her second term as a member of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board of directors.
While Republican Jon Kyl monitors water issues in the U.S. Senate, no one in Arizona's eight-member House delegation keeps close tabs on them, she said.
Laura Knaperek focuses on her 10-year record in the state Legislature.
"A staff person can find anything he wants, but it's having the guts and the principles to stand up and actually vote and push something. That's the difference," she said.One of her primary opponents, Jim Ogsbury, served as a congressional staff member who takes credit for finding government fat.
Knaperek said the most difficult cut she guided to passage was the elimination of the statewide community college oversight committee in 2002. She said, "Oh, I still take grief on that."
The board was evolving into a "mini-Board of Regents" that was spending money without approval and increasing staff to provide services that were duplicated elsewhere, Knaperek said. The state saved more than $1 million by eliminating it, she said.
In Congress, she would look to cut subsidies paid to agricultural interests and find savings in education funding. She also would push to reduce travel, slow hiring and replace paper publications with electronic publications.
Ogsbury, by no coincidence, highlights his Washington staff experience.
Following the 1994 "Republican Revolution," he served as staff director for the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development within the Committee on Appropriations.
At the time, he focused his efforts on reducing spending, improving accountability and eliminating government programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority.
"I have more relevant federal congressional experience than the rest of the field combined, including the incumbent," Ogsbury said.
"When I get to Washington, my first day, the day I get sworn in, is a work day. I don't face much of a learning curve. I don't require any on-the-job training. I'll get to work cutting government and trying to rein in the size and scope and the cost of programs on the first day that I get there," he said.
The Republican majority lost its bearing after just a few years and turned to wasteful spending, Ogsbury said. He wants to return to 1994-style spending.
David Schweikert has spotlighted his reform work within the state Legislature and the Maricopa County Treasurer's Office.
Voters are looking for change because they are frustrated by the way Congress operates and by the sluggish economy, he said.
"To stand up and say, 'Hey, I'm just like all the others,' that doesn't work. The ability to stand up and say, 'Here's what is unique about my accomplishments,' that does seem to be working so far," Schweikert said.
He discusses his four-year tenure in the Legislature in the early 1990s, just after the purge from the AzScam political corruption scandal thrust him and other young officials to key leadership positions. Legislators cut taxes, pushed through tort reform and other took on other high-profile matters in less than 100 days. Previously, legislative sessions dragged on for around 170 days.
"We accomplished that by just being very straight-forward on what our agenda was and being very disciplined," said Schweikert, who served as majority whip at age 30.
As county treasurer for a three-year stint in the 2000s, Schweikert said he ushered in new technology to make the office more accessible to residents.
"It seems to have resonated. Everyone says, 'I'll be a fiscal conservative.' OK, great. Look at my ratings when I've held public office; I've actually been one. Everyone says they'll reach out and do these things. Well, look at what I did when I actually was in office," he said.
Lee Gentry may have a more difficult task ahead of him.
As a political newcomer, the businessman first must raise his identity among voters.
"Perhaps not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of people I meet each day do not know any of the candidates," he wrote on his campaign Web site. "I am confident that with our blistering pace that we will be able to bring our message of fresh leadership to the forefront."
Gentry could not be reached for additional comment.