The Arizona desert is frequently used as backdrop for TV ads and other campaign offerings by the state's politicians, but this year it's often not for stately saguaros or picturesque landscapes.

Instead, look for the fence on the U.S.-Mexico border. The illegal crossers dashing through brush. The Border Patrol on watch. Signs warning of border-related crime.

Immigration and border security has been an issue in Sen. John McCain's high-profile primary race. But as the Aug. 24 primary approaches, Republican candidates for offices from governor on down the ballot are aggressively staking out positions that make them look tough on border security and immigration enforcement.

"The Republicans here are just taking a cookie-cutter message and that's just that immigration is a problem and we need border security first before we do anything else — border security, border security," said Rodolfo Espino, an Arizona State University assistant professor of political science.

That despite boycotts, legal challenges and street protests aimed at Arizona's new law on immigration enforcement. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Justice's filing last week of its own suit challenging the law allowed Republicans to add to the campaign season's anti-Washington drumbeat.

"Instead of sending a sufficient number of National Guard troops and financial resources to secure the border, President Obama is sending lawyers," said Buz Mill, a wealthy businessman who has included footage shot along the border in television advertising for his largely self-financed campaign's television ads for the Republican nomination for governor.

And in a surprise move that demonstrated the potency of the immigration issue, Mills announced Tuesday he was suspending his campaign. Immigration and border security concerns had buried the budget and economic issues that drew him into the race, he said.

Reliable statewide polling on the issue is hard to come by, but national polls find majority support for the Arizona legislation, which Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law April 23.

"If Jan Brewer wins with a large margin, that will be interpreted nationally that Arizona endorses this legislation," said Fred Solop, a Northern Arizona University political science professor.

That prospect has many Arizona Democrats resorting to a form of political duck-and-cover. They have to try to avoid alienating Hispanic voters — Arizona is 30 percent Hispanic — while also maintaining support of voters who approve of the law. The law, which takes effect July 29 unless blocked by a court, requires police to determine the immigration status of people they stop if there's "reasonable suspicion" that the people are in the country illegally.

That law and Arizona's status as the U.S. state with the most illegal border crossings makes it ground zero in the reheated national immigration debate.

In the U.S. Senate race, both McCain and challenger J.D. Hayworth are calling for strong border enforcement, and the issue also gets serious play as some Republicans in U.S. House races.

"When you're knocking on doors, they bring it up. When you're putting a hand in theirs, nine times out of 10 they want to know are you go to do about the problem of illegal immigration," said Jesse Kelly, a Republican congressional candidate.

He's an immigration hard-liner who is among four candidates running for the Republican nomination to challenge incumbent Democratic Gabrielle Giffords in the 8th Congressional District in southeastern Arizona. Only a few voters mention President Barack Obama's health care overhaul as a top concern, Kelly said.

"Illegal immigration is ranked one, two and three in the district. It was surprising even to me," Kelly said.

Candidates publicly oppose the immigration law at their peril, said Mary Hermanson, Republican Party chairman for Pinal County in south-central Arizona.

"This is a very, very hot topic and depending on their position, they may lose votes," she said.

Republicans vie for endorsements by prominent critics of illegal immigration such as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, and three Republicans hopefuls who resigned from the Legislature to run for an open U.S. House seat trumpet their cosponsorship of the Arizona legislation.

Brewer herself was regarded as in trouble in her contested primary, drawing criticism from fellow Republicans for pushing for a sales tax increase to help close the state's big budget shortfall. But her candidacy was buoyed when she signed the immigration bill and then by voters' approval of the tax increase.

"This is tsunami-like," said Goddard campaign manager Jan Lesher of Brewer's gain from the immigration issue.

Lesher added that a steady, gradual increase of popularity would be more worrisome. "Anything comes in that fast can go out that fast. It's basic physics," Lesher said.

Brewer's campaign has pushed the border and immigration issue hard, recently posting online video of her in front of a smuggling warning sign that federal authorities erected in the desert south of Phoenix.

"I'm 80 miles away from the border and only 30 miles away from Arizona's capitol. This is an outrage," Brewer said. "Washington says our border is as safe as it has ever been. Does this look safe to you? What is our country coming to?"

Democrats split on whether President Barack Obama's administration should challenge the Arizona law in court.

Reps. Ed Pastor and Raul Grijalva, Hispanics elected from safe districts, called early on for a lawsuit. They said the law is an affront to civil rights, and Grijalva went further by calling for boycotts of Arizona to protest the law.

But Giffords and fellow Democratic Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick and Harry Mitchell, also regarded as likely facing tough general election races, criticized the suit, calling it a distraction that doesn't help secure the border or fix the "broken" immigration system.

That stance allows Democrats to seemingly stand with constituents who favor the law even if the politicians oppose it, Solop said. "They're really trying to take a safe position here."

However, Goddard said he thinks the poor economy will overtake immigration as the top election issue, and Espino said that's a reasonable bet despite the "hype and attention" that immigration has received recently.

"There's still a lot of gloom and doom when it comes to the economy," he said.

(2) comments


Yup, it's important alright! Problem is who do we want to address the issue for us. I encourage all who live in Arizona's Congressional District #8 to support Brian Miller for Congress. We need to kick out of office Gabrielle Gifford.


Meanwhile, the Arizona's economy and the state budget problems continues to get worst due to this sideshow.

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