Andrew Thomas smiled when asked about the political sniping coming from fellow candidates in the race for Maricopa County attorney.
“I find it's interesting everyone's attacking me,” said the mustached 37-year-old. “I'm just trying to get my message out.”
No wonder he's happy: Political experts said the attacks are more evidence that Thomas, a Harvard graduate and conservative intellectual, has by far the best shot at winning the Republican primary on Sept. 7. Some observers said Thomas could be unstoppable, with his large base of support that includes many East Valley Republicans.
A lawyer and former prosecutor, Thomas has made illegal immigration his No. 1 issue while backing off his most radical ideas, such as putting drug dealers in public stockades.
Democrats, meanwhile, are counting on Thomas' ultra-right-wing views to hurt him in the Nov. 9 general election, when he'll face a Democratic candidate.
“Most people are laying bets that Mr. Thomas will be the nominee (on Sept. 7), and I hope he is,” said Sam Wercinski, chairman of the Maricopa County Democratic Party. “The fund-raising ability of the Democratic candidate will be significantly enhanced if Thomas is the nominee.”
Six Republicans and two Democrats are vying to replace four-term Republican Richard Romley, the popular top prosecutor who announced last year he wanted to run for higher office.
Thomas laid the groundwork for his campaign two years ago, when he ran for state attorney general. Appealing to right-leaning Republicans, Thomas won the primary election but lost the general election to Democrat Terry Goddard.
Although Thomas lost to Goddard both countywide and statewide, pundits said the results bode well for Thomas' candidacy this year. In Maricopa County, Thomas obtained 325,020 votes to Goddard's 348,949 votes — despite the strong name recognition Goddard enjoyed from his stint as Phoenix mayor from 1982 to 1990.
Thomas has the support of numerous East Valley lawmakers.
“He had little need to convince us,” said Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Mesa. “I'm absolutely sure he'll win it.”
No polls on the race have been released publicly, but the campaign trail rumor is that private surveys of likely voters conducted by one or more candidates show Thomas far ahead of the Republican pack.
“I wouldn't be surprised if that were true,” said one of the Republican candidates, Tom McCauley.
Observers said it made sense that Thomas, as the leader, would receive more than a fair share of criticism. Candidates Andrew Pacheco and Mike Bailey have attacked Thomas in e-mails and public statements.
But one of Thomas' biggest critics has been Jerry Landau, a former prosecutor with 24 years’ experience favored by Romley to succeed him. Two months ago, Landau blasted Thomas' campaign signs, which contain the message “Stop Illegal Immigration,” as pandering to certain voters. But last week, Landau announced on his Web site his own ideas about dealing with illegal immigration.
Landau's campaign is also distributing copies of Thomas' 1994 book, “Crime and the Sacking of America: The Roots of Chaos,” with particularly inflammatory passages highlighted.
In the book's final chapter, Thomas puts forward a number of radical ideas he believes will reverse the rate of violent crime in America. Last week, Thomas denied he still supports many of those ideas, such as putting criminals in open-air stockades, banning the attorney-client privilege and Miranda rights, rounding up homeless people and putting them in institutions or jail, and drafting all able-bodied men to serve in a compulsory neighborhood watch.
“As you grow older, your views change,” Thomas said. “The core thesis of the book was and remains true. I was the first person to argue that crime is a reflection not only of inadequate law enforcement, but something amiss in the culture.”
Thomas said his campaign focuses on fighting illegal immigrant-related crime, reducing the number of plea bargains criminals get, and fostering conservative values.
“I think we need a county attorney who is willing to bring some new energy and vision to the fight against crime,” he said. The two Democrats in the race are Jonathan Warshaw and Don Harris.
Warshaw, 37, is a former Mesa police officer and county prosecutor. Harris, 65, was appointed county attorney for five months in 1976 and has made a name for himself locally as a lawyer in private practice.