Political stars born of Arizona law

Immigration takes larger role in races across U.S.

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Despite being waylaid by the courts, Arizona’s immigration law is still growing as a powerful political force, shaping elections across the country and creating a new generation of campaign stars in and out of the state.

The law’s sponsor has become a sought-after kingmaker in Republican primaries, one of the chief legal advisers is running for statewide office in Kansas, and several Arizona sheriffs backing the law have earned substantial television airtime. Maybe the most obvious example is Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who has used the law to take control of her race and all but guarantee she’ll win in November.

“The truth is, probably 80 to 90 percent of Americans support this bill,” said state Sen. Russell Pearce, the law’s chief sponsor, who has been at the forefront of Arizona’s immigration fights for years but said this battle has pushed his profile to new heights and has staying power. “I suspect this will be an issue through the presidential election in 2012. It’s not going to go away.”

Mr. Pearce wrote Senate Bill 1070, which became the basis for the law. It was amended later by another law and then, at the end of July, altered by a federal court, which blocked key provisions.

Among the halted parts were requirements that all immigrants carry proof of legal residence and that police check the legal status of those they encounter during routine enforcement whom they suspect of being in the country illegally.

Those opposed to the law mobilized quickly and called for boycotts of Arizona, and some major cities have announced they are taking part in the boycotts. Even some Major League Baseball players have said next year’s all-star game should be moved from Phoenix to protest the law.

But after years of massive illegal immigration, the law struck a chord with voters nationwide, and it joins a small set of state laws throughout the years that have gained instant nationwide recognition.

“When I speak anywhere and I start talking about the Arizona law, there is an automatic and immediate reaction,” said former Rep. Tom Tancredo, who helped force the immigration issue on the 2008 presidential campaign agenda and is a third-party candidate for governor in Colorado. “Now how many times has that happened in our nation’s history?”

Mr. Tancredo said there’s not a location in the country where he couldn’t go to campaign in support of S.B. 1070, and that’s backed up by polls in states as diverse as Michigan and New Mexico that have found majority support for enacting similar laws.

Lawmakers in some states are working on that. Mr. Pearce said he has fielded inquiries from officials in Colorado, Tennessee, Utah, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

He also has been asked to endorse candidates in Florida, Colorado and Georgia, where he weighed in on the Republican governor’s nomination.

In that race, former Rep. Nathan Deal had been polling in the single digits through April. But several days after Arizona’s law was signed, he announced that he would pursue the same policy in Georgia. That was when his standing in the polls began to rise, culminating in his winning the nomination in an August runoff.

But opponents of the law say it can hurt, too, and they point to the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Florida.

Trying to stave off a challenge from “tea-party”-backed candidate Rick Scott, Attorney General Bill McCollum said he would pursue his own version of Arizona’s law if he won the governorship.

Lynn Tramonte, deputy director at America’s Voice, an immigrant rights group, said that “just backfired tremendously.” Prominent Hispanic Republicans criticized Mr. McCollum for his stance, and voters appeared not to turn out in heavily Hispanic areas that he needed to win the nomination. Mr. McCollum narrowly lost the nomination to Mr. Scott.

Ms. Tramonte said that pattern of one-upsmanship is playing out in Republican primaries across the country.

“You’ve got a segment of the Republican base that is pretty rabidly against immigration, and when you’ve got multiple candidates in the primary who agree on a lot of the issues, exploiting immigration is a nice way to get attention and exploit a controversy, which will get you free press,” she said.

She said that won’t work, though, in general elections in states with a lot of Hispanic voters, and some candidates are having to walk back statements they made in the primary campaigns.

The Arizona law will play less of a role in dividing candidates in those states.

Still, that’s decidedly not the case in Arizona, where the law remains the focal point of state elections and even the boycott has become controversial. Democratic candidates are under fire for getting campaign support from unions that have joined the boycott.

Although Mrs. Brewer has been outspoken in defending the law over the past four months, the governor was not the driving force behind the Arizona measure. It wasn’t even clear that she would sign the bill until she stepped to the lectern moments before she affixed her signature.

At the time, the Arizona Republic said Mrs. Brewer was facing “a stiff primary challenge,” but that situation changed the moment she signed the legislation.

She cruised to the Republican nomination, winning 87 percent of the vote, and has taken control of the general election contest against Democratic nominee and current Attorney General Terry Goddard. A Rasmussen Reports poll taken Aug. 25 found Mrs. Brewer leading by 19 percentage points.

There’s no question the issue is dominant. It took less than 90 seconds into last week’s gubernatorial debate for the first mention of S.B. 1070 to come up, and it was the first question asked of the candidates.

Mr. Goddard attacked Mrs. Brewer for putting too much of the focus on the new immigration law and interior enforcement rather than on border security.

Still, Mrs. Brewer seemed to lose her place during her opening statement in the debate when she paused and looked down at her clasped hands for more than 10 seconds. She recovered but stuttered through a list of her battles against the federal government on immigration and health care.

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