By: David Gonyea

Democrats in Arizona flipped a Senate seat last year. Watching presidential candidates debate this week, there was enthusiasm to take on President Trump and stress over the stakes of the election.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Over 18 million people saw last night’s debate among one half of the party’s presidential hopefuls. That’s a record for a Democratic primary debate. NPR’s Don Gonyea attended a pair of watch parties in Arizona, where he witnessed Democrats’ eagerness to beat President Trump.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Let’s start in Scottsdale. This is a sprawling suburb of Phoenix. It’s known for its Republican politics.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: To have this debate and the debate party and all these people – I’m just thrilled. We have a couple of housekeeping notes that we want…

GONYEA: On both debate nights this week, Democrats gathered in the suburb to watch the Democratic candidates on a giant movie screen at the cineplex in the shopping mall. And they attended a pre-debate tailgate party held in a local pub – a wise choice with temperatures outside in triple digits says Jon Ryder, a local Democratic activist.

JON RYDER: In the summertime in Phoenix, even though it’s – what? – only 112, this sort of passes as a “tailgate” in quotes.

GONYEA: Also here was 30-year-old Jay Duran, who says she’s only gotten involved in Democratic Party politics since the 2016 election. She says her story is not unusual. Last year, Democrats captured a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona. Duran says they’re looking for more in 2020.

JAY DURAN: We had Democrats in Scottsdale watching a Democratic debate in Scottsdale. That is huge.

GONYEA: A Republican suburb.

DURAN: Yes, a super-white Republican suburb. That was just amazing to me.

GONYEA: Sixty-five-year-old Tony Hill is a Democrat, and her stress about next year’s election is visible as she speaks. She says she likes the Democrats’ chances nationally, but she also worries when she thinks about just how high the stakes are.

TONY HILL: I mean, it’s about everything for me. It’s climate change, education, wages, you know, civil rights, LGBTQ, you know, everything. We’re going backwards.

GONYEA: Many attendees on that first night said they were glad to see so many ideas discussed, even if they grumbled about the size of the field. On the second debate night, I headed to a neighborhood of small bungalow and adobe-style houses not far from downtown Phoenix. This time, a small house party with just over a dozen people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LESTER HOLT: Good evening. I’m Lester Holt. And welcome tonight…

GONYEA: Some of these voters had favorites, but none sounded locked in just yet. But you can hear their reaction to the debate’s big moment, when Senator Kamala Harris confronted former Vice President Joe Biden on civil rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMALA HARRIS: I would like to speak on the issue of race.

(CHEERING)

GONYEA: And when the debate wrapped up, this was their take on who did well over both nights.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Warren was the best yesterday, and today, clearly Harris.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Kamala Harris is on fire.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I like Kamala. She’s like totally – I’m like, wow, you go girl tonight.

GONYEA: But if commentators on TV were calling it a dreadful moment for Biden, he had defenders. This is Kris Beecher, who works on Navajo housing issues.

KRIS BEECHER: Obviously he’s a front-runner, and everybody’s going after him. But I think he held his own.

GONYEA: There has also been a debate among Democrats more broadly about how much to make this race about President Trump. Joe Keene, a Native American and an attorney, said even the two debates highlighted that.

JOE KEENE: Yesterday. They barely mentioned Trump. In this debate, I mean, right at the outset it seems like, you know, Biden, Harris, they’re going right at Trump because I think they understand that this election’s going to be a referendum on Trump. Americans are going to have a choice – Trump or not.

GONYEA: One other common sentiment at both nights of debate watching – a hope that the field begins to shrink soon, to the point where one night will be enough to fit all of the candidates on the stage and on TV screens. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Phoenix.

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