PHOENIX -- In the last weeks before election day, the race for Maricopa County Sheriff is far from decided. While the long-serving Joe Arpaio still appears to be in the lead, one of his opponents has gained momentum, and the other is railing against charges that his candidacy is a sham.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio doesn't debate his opponents. So far this year, he's more or less ignored his two challengers, an Independent and a Democrat. Then, three and half weeks before Election Day, Arpaio launched an attack ad against his Democratic opponent Paul Penzone. The commercial's been panned for manipulating an old argument between Penzone and his now ex-wife.
"He's tried to explain it away, but there's no excuse for hitting a woman," intones the ad's narrator.
The Arpaio campaign released a statement defending the ad as a response to "vicious and distorted personal attack[s]" from Penzone, who said he's been waiting for the Sheriff to come after him.
"He is scared because he recognizes he's up against a better man who will keep this community safe," Penzone said, "so we're right where we expected to be, and these attacks don't scare me in any fashion. They show me that he's the one who's concerned."
That concern might be fueled by a recent poll commissioned by Penzone's campaign, showing him fewer than 5 points behind Arpaio.
Anti-Arpaio activists have been hitting the streets for months with thousands of volunteers. One group, Adios Arpaio, says they registered 34,000 voters before the deadline. Now, they're out making sure the people they registered actually vote -- and they're attacking Independent candidate Mike Stauffer.
"Stauffer is obviously not a real candidate," said Brendan Walsh, Director of the Campaign for Arizona's Future, one of the organizations behind Adios Arpaio. "There's no chance that he can win, so the only real alternative to Arpaio is Paul Penzone. If you don't want Arpaio in office, you really have to vote for Penzone."
Walsh's volunteers are spreading the message that a vote for Stauffer is a vote for Arpaio.
"That's ridiculous," Stauffer said. "A vote for Mike Stauffer is a vote for Mike Stauffer."
Stauffer, whose campaign is mostly self-funded, has had little -- if any -- signage, mailers, or TV advertising. But he says he takes his message directly to the public: at events, on social media, by walking neighborhoods himself, and through volunteers.
When asked how many volunteers he has, Stauffer replied: "I don't know. I have a very basic ... I have a basic group around me. And they have gotten people to help them, so it's been grassroots, so I couldn't tell you how many are active volunteers for me, and I probably couldn't tell you how many are actively supporting me."
In the same poll showing Penzone closing in on Arpaio, Stauffer netted just 3.4 percent. But he thinks voters responding to polls are afraid to say they support an Independent, and when they cast their ballot, could overlook the R and the D.
"My two opponents owe favors to people who get them elected, so they won't be able to solve the problems," Stauffer said. "I'll be able to without having to ask permission from party masters or special interest masters."
Stauffer's foes posit different theories about him. Some think he's secretly backed by the Sheriff and is in the race to split the anti-Arpaio vote. Others say he's just doing it because he wants to make a name for himself.
And even with about $300 in the bank at last report and not much visibility, Stauffer has no intention of heeding the calls for him to drop out.
"To come this far, and what, be a quitter?" Stauffer asked. "Just because they would be quitters in this situation?"
For his part, Paul Penzone said he's focused on beating Arpaio, brushing aside a charge from Stauffer that he won't agree to debate.
"We've debated several times," Penzone said, "but at this point, if there's going to be a debate it needs to be with the Sheriff. That is the office I'm pursuing. Stauffer's doing his to become relevant. Those days are long gone."
Early voting in Maricopa County is already underway.