- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 22, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - The Arizona desert has been a hotbed of leading presidential contenders leading up to the state’s party primaries Tuesday.

Republicans Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Democrat Bernie Sanders all have held rallies in the state in the past few days. Democrat Hillary Clinton spoke at a west Phoenix high school Monday. TV and radio campaign ads have ratcheted up in the past month.

Here’s a closer look at Arizona’s election landscape:

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REPUBLICAN RACE



Trump has had the most prominence in the state, making three appearances since launching his campaign.

He appeared Saturday with Fox News host Sean Hannity at the Phoenix Convention Center before speaking in the conservative-leaning Phoenix suburb of Fountain Hills. He then went south to the city of Tucson.

The events drew boisterous crowds and unrest from protesters, including one who was punched by an audience member in Tucson. When in Phoenix last July, Trump told the crowd he loves Mexican people but the country is “killing us at the border, and they’re killing us on trade.”

He has garnered support despite dismissing longtime Sen. John McCain’s reputation as a war hero because he was captured in Vietnam. Trump’s anti-immigrant stance has gotten him endorsements from former Gov. Jan Brewer and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his immigration crackdowns.

Cruz toured the border and held a rally Friday at a Christian university in Phoenix. He was joined by former GOP rival and former Texas governor Rick Perry and Carly Fiorina, another former candidate. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has stayed out of Arizona, focusing his campaign on Utah’s caucuses Tuesday.

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DEMOCRATIC RACE

Sanders spent the last week talking to thousands of supporters in Phoenix as news trickled in that he was losing primaries in Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina. But the Vermont senator is hopeful he can still close the delegate gap.

Sanders also held rallies on the Navajo Nation and in Tucson, visited the border in Nogales on Saturday and Flagstaff on Monday night.

To up the political star wattage, former President Bill Clinton stumped for his wife Sunday in Phoenix and Tucson. Among her Arizona supporters is former Rep. Gabby Giffords. A gun control advocate who survived being shot in the head in Tucson in 2011, Giffords appears in a pro-Clinton campaign ad and introduced the former first lady at a rally in Phoenix on Monday.

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INDEPENDENT VOTERS

Arizona’s primary, or “presidential preference election,” is closed to the state’s largest voting bloc. Registered independents outnumber both Democrats and Republicans. According to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, roughly 1.2 million of 3.3 million voters list themselves as independent.

Independents taking part in this election had to reregister with the party of their candidate pick by Feb. 22.

Secretary of State spokesman Matt Roberts said 41,000 new voters registered between January and the deadline. It’s unclear how many of them were independents joining a party.

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AVAILABLE DELEGATES

The winner-take-all prize for the Republican candidate is the backing of 58 more delegates. State law requires pledged delegates to vote for the state’s top vote-getter on the first convention ballot. On the Republican side nationally, Trump has a lead in delegates but still needs to win a majority of the remaining delegates to get to the 1,237 he needs to avoid a convention fight. Cruz is well behind, and an Associated Press analysis shows he can’t get enough delegates to win outright.

Arizona’s Democratic Party has 75 delegates at stake, plus 10 superdelegates. Nationally, Clinton now has a lead of more than 300 pledged delegates over Sanders from the primaries and caucuses: 1,147-830. When including superdelegates, or party officials who can back any candidate, Clinton has a much bigger lead: 1,614 to 856.

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EARLY BALLOTS

The polls are set to be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. But nearly 1 million people requested early vote-by-mail ballots.

As of Friday, Maricopa County voters had returned about 463,000 of more than 843,000 early ballots. Pima County got back nearly 136,000 of 224,000 early ballots sent to voters.

Many of the Republican ballots were returned before Sen. Marco Rubio dropped out of the race. Wednesday was the last day for voters to mail ballots to ensure they arrive by Election Day.

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PRIMARIES PAST

There was far less in-state campaigning for Arizona’s last presidential primary in 2012.

On the Democratic side, President Barack Obama lacked any formidable opponents.

Four GOP candidates made appearances after participating in a debate in the Phoenix area. Former Gov. Mitt Romney, the only person who ran ads in the state, easily swept the race with 47 percent of the vote.

In 2008, Arizona’s presidential primary was a tight contest between Clinton and Obama. Ultimately, Clinton emerged the winner, but she and Obama split the available delegates. McCain won the Republican race.

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