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Bivens ends Senate bid, clearing Democratic primary path for Carmona

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WASHINGTON – Former Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Don Bivens ended his U.S. Senate bid Wednesday, a move intended to unify the party behind former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona.

Bivens’ decision lets Carmona avoid what experts said could have been an expensive primary campaign and instead focus on the race to replace outgoing Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

But observers say Carmona still has his work cut out for him in the general election against Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, or businessman Wil Cardon, who are facing off in the Republican primary.

Bivens had been the only high-profile Democrat in the race, but his campaign lost momentum after Carmona entered the race late last year. Still, he insisted Wednesday that he could have won if he stayed in the race.

“The continuing head-to-head competition of our Democratic primary is draining resources that we will need as a party to win the U.S. Senate race in November,” Bivens said in a statement released by his campaign.

“While I am confident we would win this primary, the cost and impact on the party I’ve spent my life fighting for could diminish our chance to achieve the ultimate goal: winning in November,” the statement said.

Carmona thanked Bivens for his service to Arizona and said in a statement that his former opponent will be an “integral player in any winning strategy” as Democrats try to capture their first Arizona Senate seat since Dennis DeConcini won in 1988.

Carmona campaign spokesman Andy Barr said Bivens “made a selfless decision and he recognizes that we (Democrats) have a very good chance to win the Senate seat.”

Tempe-based pollster Michael O’Neil said Bivens’ early exit helps Carmona by saving him money and making it easier to sell him as a moderate against the eventual GOP nominee.

“He doesn’t have to waste resources in the primary and he doesn’t have to cater to an exclusively Democratic base,” O’Neil said of Carmona.

Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, which tracks federal elections, said Biven’s decision was not surprising, considering the backing Carmona is getting from national Democrats.

“The Democrats in Washington had clearly gotten behind Carmona as their preferred candidate,” Kondik said. “Bivens dropping out was acknowledging the reality that the party was against him.”

Kondik said Bivens’ withdrawal makes for “a good day” for Carmona and may nudge his campaign in the right direction. But he said the former surgeon general still faces an uphill battle, pointing to recent polls that show him trailing GOP front-runner Flake by double digits in a head-to-head contest.

Flake, now in his sixth term in the House, had raised more than $3 million for his Senate campaign by the end of 2011, according to the Federal Election Commission.

The Mesa Republican noted Bivens’ departure on his Senate campaign Twitter account Wednesday.

“Just got word Don Bivens is leaving Sen race,” Flake posted on his account. “Don is a good man. I’m sure he will continue to serve his state and community well.”

The Center for Politics currently rates the Arizona race as leaning Republican, but downgraded it from “likely Republican” after Carmona entered the race.

Carmona, a former registered independent who served under President George W. Bush, had been pegged as the Democrats’ most electable option by observers because of his moderate politics and support from the Obama White House.

President Barack Obama has indicated he intends to campaign heavily in Arizona.