By Tim Gaynor
GILA RIVER INDIAN COMMUNITY, Arizona (Reuters) - A Latino Democrat who rose from a hardscrabble childhood to become U.S. surgeon general has tightened the race for an open Senate seat in Arizona, a state that hasn't elected a Democratic senator in almost 25 years.
With just two weeks before the November 6 election, Democrat Richard Carmona is in a statistical dead heat with six-term Republican congressman Jeff Flake, the early favorite.
Carmona has been boosted in part by a drive to register thousands of Hispanics riled by the border state's crackdown on illegal immigration. But it is economic issues such as job creation and deficit reduction, not immigration, that are dominating the discourse in the race.
"I see the job as a senator as being the primary advocate for ... business interests in my community," Carmona said in a in a debate with Flake at the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix last week.
Arizona has not elected a Democratic senator since Dennis DeConcini won a third and final term in 1988. Flake and Carmona are battling for the Senate seat vacated by Republican Jon Kyl.
A win for Carmona would boost Democrats, who hope to hold onto a slim 51-47 advantage over Republicans in the U.S. Senate.
Victory for either candidate will depend on independent voters, who make up about a third of the state's electorate and tend to be moderate. That is one reason analysts say neither candidate is campaigning hard on the state's divisive crackdown on illegal immigrants.
Arizonans are "very hawkish on the border issues, but they're pretty darn moderate in terms of how to solve this problem about (illegal immigrants) who have been here a long time ... and the candidates know that," said Bruce Merrill, a political analyst and professor emeritus at Arizona State University.
Carmona's life story is part of his campaign's appeal. He was raised in poverty in New York City by Puerto Rican parents who struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse.
Carmona dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Army, where he became a decorated Special Forces combat medic in the Vietnam War. He returned to school, eventually earning his medical degree and later being named surgeon general by Republican President George W. Bush.
He is campaigning on a platform of job creation and balancing the federal budget, and pledges to move beyond partisanship to break the deadlock in Washington if elected.
Flake, 49, a fifth-generation Arizonan, seeks to galvanize the party's conservative base with his opposition to abortion and a record of voting to cut taxes and the size of government. He is also pledging to tackle the U.S. budget deficit.
"We've got to change direction in this country, we can't continue (to spend) our kids' inheritance," he told voters at the debate.
As they head toward Election Day, Carmona has a cash advantage and is polling at least even with Flake after starting out behind. He also has raised $2.2 million in the third quarter, compared to Flake's $1.3 million.
A Behavior Research Center poll this month had Carmona leading Flake 44 percent to 40 percent among likely voters, within the 4.4 percentage-point margin of error. A Public Policy Polling survey had the Democrat ahead 45 percent to 43 percent, noting he was winning over independents and had crossover Republican support. The margin of error was four percentage points.
That contrasts with two polls last month, by HighGround and Rasmussen Reports, that had Flake ahead by three to six points.
Carmona, 62, is being aided by activists who are using anger at the state's immigration crackdown and sweeps by controversial Phoenix-area Sheriff Joe Arpaio to register thousands of Latino voters in door-to-door campaigns, state Democrats say.
The state Democratic Party said activists have registered about 15,000 voters - some new, others re-registered - in recent months. They were not able to say how many were Hispanic.
Both candidates support strong border enforcement. But Carmona also backs a comprehensive immigration overhaul and the Dream Act, legislation that would allow some children of illegal immigrants a chance to stay in the United States legally.
Part of Flake's challenge is with moderate Republicans and independents alienated by his rightward tilt in the primary to defeat a rival who was popular with conservative Tea Party activists, analysts say.
"Arizona is indicative of some of the problems Republicans are having nationally when they nominate candidates who are notably more conservative than the median voter in the state," said Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University.
"It can potentially cause problems in the general election," he added.
Flake acknowledged he has a fight on his hands, but said he felt confident his message would appeal across the spectrum.
"Economic opportunity, a change in direction from where we're going now, independents certainly gravitate toward that as well as a lot of Democrats ... because they understand that this administration ... is really stifling job creation," he said.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)