WASHINGTON — With Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ political future still uncertain, Democratic officials eyeing next year’s Senate race in Arizona have turned their attention to former U. S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, a Bush administration official who broke ranks and complained about politics driving his job.
But Carmona is noncommittal.
“Quite frankly, I’m just not sure it’s the right opportunity yet,” he said.
Democrats have struggled to field a candidate in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican. The nominee would likely have been Giffords, but since she was shot in the head last January in Tucson, she is undergoing extensive therapy. Her staff said there is no timetable for making a decision about her political future.
Two candidates are set to compete in the GOP primary — Rep. Jeff Flake and real estate mogul Wil Cardon. Former Arizona Democratic chairman Don Bivens is also considering a run.
Democrats in Washington have courted Carmona. They believe his military service in the Vietnam War and his health background will play well in Arizona.
“I have been having a dialogue with some of the senior elected officials nationally as well as some of the state and local people who were encouraging me,” Carmona said.
Carmona, 61, is weighing all the things he would have to give up for an uncertain future in politics. He teaches at the University of Arizona and serves on various corporate boards.
“I have a lot of people who depend on me now,” Carmona said.
As surgeon general under President George W. Bush, Carmona ended his stint on a contentious note. Shortly after leaving office, Carmona testified at a congressional hearing that political appointees stymied and delayed reports for political reasons rather than scientific ones.
Carmona said at the time that his speeches were heavily edited and that he was told not to talk about certain issues. For example, he supported comprehensive sex education that would include some abstinence education in the curriculum. But the Bush administration was a strong supporter of the abstinence-only programs.
Carmona said he is an independent and that he tells friends, “jokingly, but only half-kidding that I’m a radical centrist.”
“It just happens that in our political system, you have to belong to a party to gain the infrastructure and to be able to fundraise. I get it. I understand, but that’s not going to change me any,” Carmona said, noting he has voted both Republican and Democratic but declined to be specific.
Carmona returned to Tucson after serving as surgeon general. He said that Republicans also tried to recruit him to run for office back in 2006, but he wanted to continue as surgeon general.
Bivens, a lawyer, has not run for political office but has strong ties with state and local party leaders. He has spent recent weeks talking to potential donors and supporters, and is expected to announce his decision in the next few weeks.
“I think it’s fair to say he is really encouraged by the response he’s had so far,” said Eric Adelstein, a Bivens adviser.
Bivens oversaw the state party during a rough election for Democrats in 2010. Republicans won the race for governor, took over both chambers of the Arizona Legislature and picked up a pair of congressional seats.
Despite the absence of any official candidate yet, Democrats in Washington are not backing down on their claims that Arizona is a potential pick-up state.
“We remain confident we’re going to have a strong Democratic candidate there who will run an aggressive campaign and it will be a competitive race,” said Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.