PHOENIX Voters in Arizona go to the polls on Tuesday to select a Republican candidate to vie for the seat of outgoing Governor Jan Brewer, who has repeatedly clashed with the Obama administration over illegal immigration.
With border security issues high on the political agenda, voters will choose from six hopefuls including state treasurer and businessman Doug Ducey and ex-mayor and developer Scott Smith, who are seen as frontrunners among recent political polls and observers.
"I think the candidate who has convinced voters that they are the most conservative wins the Republican primary," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "That's what voters there want to hear."
The Arizona governor's race is the highest profile battle among a series of state primary contests being held on Tuesday that also include votes in Florida, Vermont and Oklahoma. The winner in Arizona will face Democrat Fred Duval, a former member of the state Board of Regents, in the Nov. 6 general election.
Republican contender Ducey, the staunchly anti-abortion former chief executive of ice cream company Cold Stone Creamery, has campaigned on rejuvenating the border state's economy, improving education, and shaking free of federal constraints.
But Ducey, 50, has also called for better border security, while avoiding statements on comprehensive immigration reform and providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that might alienate some voters.
"We need to start with securing the border and then we can talk about other things," said Ducey, whose supporters include hardline Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Tea Party favorite Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
His main primary opponent, Smith, the 58-year-old former mayor of the state's third-largest city, is considered a more moderate Republican who also wants a secure border and has been endorsed by Brewer.
"I do believe that we have to fix the immigration system," said Smith. "We need to find a way for people to be right by the law and so they can earn their way to residency."
A recent poll of early voters by political consultant Bert Coleman pegged Ducey and Smith as the top two in the race, confirming what other observers have said.
A potential dark horse is Christine Jones, 46, a former internet hosting company executive, political observers said.
Jones, a first-time candidate, has campaigned hard against illegal immigration, billing herself as a conservative leader who joined the race as an political outsider.
Another key Arizona race is a tight Republican contest to challenge incumbent Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick in a competitive U.S. Congressional race.
Arizona Democrats will also choose a successor to U.S. Representative Ed Pastor, who is retiring after 11 terms from a heavily Latino district where there is no Republican candidate.
In Vermont, a handful of candidates are lining up for the Republican nod to challenge Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin and U.S. House Rep. Peter Welch, both considered favorites in November.
Among the candidates seeking to face Shumlin is Libertarian Dan Feliciano, who has asked voters to write him in on the Republican ticket. Others contenders include Republican frontrunner Scott Milne, and Steve Berry and Emily Peyton.
In Florida, most attention will be focused on the gubernatorial race, which is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested - and expensive - in recent memory although the outcome of the primaries is a foregone conclusion.
Incumbent Governor Rick Scott and his main Democratic challenger, former Governor Charlie Crist, are forecast to win by wide margins.
Expected to be one of the nation's most closely watched races in November, it offers Democrats a rare chance to unseat a southern Republican governor. The last time Democrats won the Florida governor's race was in 1994, when Jeb Bush narrowly lost to incumbent Lawton Chiles.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Michael Perry)