The rhetoric is getting bitter on blogs, campaign signs and now on YouTube. A new campaign advertisement labels veteran state Rep. Russell Pearce of Mesa an embarrassment to the Republican Party in the run-up to the hotly contested District 18 Senate race against political rookie Kevin Gibbons.
Sponsored by two independent expenditure committees, The People of AZ and Protect Arizona's Future, the YouTube advertisement titled "Representing Republicans," quotes Pearce's negative comments in the past about senior party leaders.
But Pearce says that quotes where he called Sen. John McCain "treacherous and treasonous" and Rep. Jeff Flake "less than honest" and when he demanded that Sen. Jon Kyl be fired have all been taken out of context.
"I don't even remember saying these exact words and even if I did this was a long time ago and now it's being taken out of context," Pearce said.
He said he has disagreed with each of those leaders in the past on their illegal immigration policies, but that he's still on good terms with them.
"In fact, I talked to John McCain today," Pearce said Friday.
Tim Hill, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona and chairman of both independent committees, said the groups believe Pearce is "mean-spirited" when it comes to party members with whom he disagrees, especially on the highly divisive issue of illegal immigration.
"He's mean-spirited about Republicans, particularly about the guy who could be the country's next president," Hill said, referring to McCain.
Hill added that the group would like to see someone elected who looks at issues of public safety "beyond the narrow confines of immigration." He criticized Pearce's campaign platform of reducing taxes and cutting government spending as one "without any deep thought."
"He needs to talk not about tax cuts but about truly balancing our state budget without hurting communities," Hill said.
Hill strongly endorsed Gibbons, a Republican immigration lawyer, calling him "well-rounded and level-headed."
Pearce had criticized McCain for missing votes in the Senate because of his preoccupation with the presidential campaign. Kyl and Flake's support of an immigration reform bill also drew harsh comments from Pearce.
But his supporters, including District 18 Republican vice chairman Paul Whetten, said these comments were made as a reaction to "nonconservative" stands.
"Mr. Pearce was fairly irritated, obviously - maybe a little rough - but I can understand why he would say that in that context," Whetten said.
Gibbons, meanwhile, is lapping up the support and joining the verbal war.
"I think the key word here is embarrassment," Gibbons said. "Here we have three prominent Republicans in Washington and the fact that he's telling them all this has been an embarrassment to my district."
Gibbons, who's related to Flake, has the backing of the business industry and key political players including Farrell Quinlan, former vice president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Quinlan is the spokesman for another independent committee, Judgment Matters, which also is campaigning against Pearce.
Another independent committee, Mesa Deserves Better, while ambiguous about its plans, is led by those opposed to the employer sanctions law, which was sponsored by Pearce. Committee chairman Nathan Sproul, a GOP heavy hitter and former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party, consulted for the anti-sanctions-law group, Wake Up Arizona!
That law is one of the toughest in the nation on employers and, along with other anti-illegal immigration measures he's pushed, is a point of pride for Pearce. He has criticized Gibbons for taking money from those who support cheap labor at the expense of jobs for Americans.
Pearce has his fair share of supporters. And they're not sitting quietly either.
His campaign is behind a Web site www.therealkevingibbons.com - which compiles information "shared by others" about Gibbons' bid for the Senate seat.
Pearce supporters have been circulating news releases about Gibbons' past voting record in Mesa elections. They also have questioned the money he's raising from business interest groups well outside the district, claiming it's proof that Gibbons' loyalties don't lie within the district, which includes central and west Mesa.
Pearce also touts the support of the Maricopa County Republican Committee, unusual in a primary race that involves other Republican candidates. He also has the support of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the union representing Phoenix Police Department rank-and-file officers which has aligned itself with the anti-illegal immigration faction.
Matt Tolman, District 18 Republican chairman, who lost to Mesa City Councilman Dave Richins in this year's city elections, is a vocal Pearce supporter.
It remains to be seen just how much support Gibbons can drum up and if it would be enough to take on his experienced opponent, who's represented Mesa in the state House for eight years.
Pearce, however, may not be able to rest on the laurels earned from his anti-illegal immigration message.
Charlie Deaton, president and CEO of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, noted that as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Pearce earned some detractors when he failed to communicate to his district the state budget provision that could result in Mesa being forced to return about $2 million to the state.
"He'll have to take the heat for that," Deaton said.