By Mike Saucier and Chip Scutari
September 18, 2014
IDEAS
Mike Saucier is the founder of Soss Communications. Chip Scutari is co-founder of Scutari and Cieslak Public Relations.

Cue the scripted photo-op of the corn-dog eating candidate.

Yes, the quadrennial cliché has begun anew. The parade of presidential wannabes “exploring” their way through the homogenous hamlets of Iowa and New Hampshire is upon us. An annual Steak Fry with outgoing Iowa Senator Tom Harkin drew 200 or so requests from reporters seeking credentials, according to POLITICO. That news came as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie headed to an appearance at a bakery in Nashua, New Hampshire. Similar scenarios will play out in the coming months in both states as a smorgasbord of first, second and-third tier candidates from both sides of the aisle enter the first real “tests” of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Des Moines. Cedar Rapids. Manchester. Concord. Quaint places that put the V in Vanilla.

Nice people but not riveting testing grounds for presidential candidates. The American people deserve better.

Let’s say you could design a job interview that puts candidates through a grueling series of tests with a diverse set of issues and a diverse population. You would want to challenge the candidate in different environments and landscapes, all with a range of issues that resonate with the rest of the country and with people of all ranges of political stripes, class and ethnicities.

You might want a more challenging gauntlet than the predictable and parochial path set by Iowa and New Hampshire. Times change. Let’s not forget that Iowa leapt ahead of New Hampshire (mostly by accident) about 40 years ago.

If you are willing to look beyond some of its hard-won stereotypes, then Arizona is the choice to replace Iowa or New Hampshire as the first presidential contest. Before that can happen, however, Arizona has to be willing to provoke the wrath of both parties, which protect the Iowa and New Hampshire tradition by threatening not to seat delegates from states whose primaries are held too early.

No sweat. One thing about Arizona is that it does not take kindly to being told what to do by Washington.

It’s for that and other reasons that Arizona is the perfect host to determine presidential fitness.

Sure, we’ve supplied Jon Stewart with some comedy gold in recent memory with our proud federal defiance of pretty much everything and those tiny controversies about the “show us your papers” law in 2010 (which has been emaciated by the courts) and a refuse-to-serve-gays legislation (which was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer).

Yup. Three cheers for the Grand Canyon State.

Despite our generous contributions to Comedy Central and depictions as a redder-than-Red State, Arizona could glow purple in the coming years. Our demographics and growing population represent the future of our country. (Iowa and New Hampshire represent a shrinking slice of the past.) Latinos make up a third of our state’s population. We are home to 22 federally recognized Native American tribes. Independents are our largest voting bloc. The Land of Barry Goldwater now has five of nine congressional seats controlled by Democrats. The population of the Phoenix metropolitan area, known as the Valley, just about equals the population of Iowa and New Hampshire combined.

We share a border with Mexico, standing on the front lines of the immigration/border security debate. (Just picture presidential aspirants heading to Nogales to do the requisite border tour.) As one of the most gun-friendly states in the country, we are a flashpoint for gun rights or gun control—depending on who is campaigning.

We are TV-ready with amazing geographical diversity. Candidates weary of Phoenix and Tucson can campaign in a roster of quirky smaller cities and towns such as Jerome, Bisbee, Sedona, Tombstone, Patagonia and Williams. Tamales, enchiladas and other Mexican cuisine can replace corn dogs as the meal of choice on the trail.

At a time when both parties talk about expanding their bases—both courting Latinos—it makes more strategic sense to put our presidential wannabes right in front of those same constituencies. What better atmosphere for presidential candidates to walk into than an energized core of Independents?

Meanwhile, Iowa’s presidential beauty contest looks a bit unseemly these days. In August, a former Iowa state senator pleaded guilty to federal charges for receiving thousands of dollars in payments for switching loyalties from Rep. Michele Bachmann to then-Rep. Ron Paul before the 2012 caucuses. He had headed Bachmann’s effort there. While those kinds of shenanigans can happen anywhere, it did spark the question in the minds of two transplanted Arizonans: Are there better alternatives than these two states for us to first gauge the merit of our future presidents? The answer: Hell yes.

Of course, this will not be easy. State legislators signed a bill earlier this year that moved the Arizona presidential primary back to the middle of March, which brought it back into compliance with the national party delegate selection rules.

Gov. Brewer proudly touts “Arizona’s Comeback” with the arrival or expansion of iconic brands like Apple, General Motors and Go Daddy. But there is more to do. The next Arizona governor, whomever that is come Nov. 4th, can build on Brewer’s legacy by having the guts to stand up to the national party primary bullies. The presidential candidates, and their parties, love to talk about change, the need for reform and getting things done. Why not apply that to the primaries?

The first primary state is where we should see which candidates have the gravitas, the chutzpah, to be leader of the free world. Arizona is a vastly diverse political environment with a built-in slate of issues that matter to Joe Six Pack.

Iowa and New Hampshire. Been there. Done that. It’s Arizona’s turn to be the first float in the presidential parade.

Mike Saucier, a former newspaper editor, is a writer and founder of Soss Communications, a public relations company in Arizona. Chip Scutari, who covered politics for The Arizona Republic, is co-founder of Scutari and Cieslak Public Relations and a political consultant in Phoenix.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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