President Obama chose an unusual way to begin the campaign year in Arizona, where he hopes to reverse Democrats' losing streak — by getting into a highly public confrontation with the state's Republican governor.
Mr. Obama's encounter with Gov. Jan Brewer at the airport in Mesa, where she was photographed wagging her right index finger at the president, captured their tense relationship over immigration, border security and federal gun-running.
Mr. Obama is trying to become the second Democrat to win Arizona since Harry S. Truman in 1948. President Bill Clinton won the state in 1996.
"The slim opportunity he might have had just disappeared," said Tom Morrissey, the state's Republican Party chairman. "I don't think he helped himself. I think he stepped in it."
Images of the encounter — and the competing statements issued by the White House and the governor - overshadowed media coverage of Mr. Obama's intent for the visit: to build on policies and election-year themes of his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
Arizona pollster Michael O'Neil said Mr. Obama's chances of winning the state aren't great, and the episode with the governor probably won't change many minds.
"It's playing out along partisan lines," Mr. O'Neil said. "The Republican base absolutely loves it. Democrats are appalled."
Mrs. Brewer greeted the president as he disembarked Air Force One. She handed him a letter inviting him to discuss the state's economy and to visit the Mexican border with her. The dialogue went south from there.
Mrs. Brewer said the president brought up her recent political memoir, which includes the governor's unflattering account of their White House meeting nearly two years ago that accuses the president of being "patronizing" and "condescending."
"He was a little tense," she told Phoenix talk-radio host Mike Broomhead. "He said he had read the excerpt, and he didn't think I was very cordial. He was somewhat thin-skinned and a little tense, to say the least."
Mrs. Brewer said she was trying to be "gracious" and didn't remember pointing a finger at the president. She said Mr. Obama walked away while she was still talking to him.
"I was just shocked by his sternness of it all," the governor said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney dismissed coverage of the encounter as "political theater," but added that Mr. Obama did tell Mrs. Brewer that her book's characterization of their meeting was inaccurate. The White House said separately that Mr. Obama would be happy to meet with the governor again.
Public reaction has been mixed. The radio host told Mrs. Brewer, "You are getting high-fives from every one of our listeners." Arizona Republic columnist E.J. Montini wrote that the governor "should be embarrassed."
On the governor's Facebook page, more than 35,000 people "liked" her account of the confrontation. Posted comments included one from a woman who called the governor "disrespectful" and another from a man who said Mr. Obama "ran away ... because he didn't have a Teleprompter."
Republican Matt Salmon, a former congressman running in Arizona for an open House seat, said he thought Mr. Obama provoked the encounter.
"I think what President Obama did was bait her," Mr. Salmon said. "He probably wanted to look tough. Our governor is no slouch. And she's very expressive with her hands when she talks."
The state's relationship with the federal government has been every bit as tense as the airport meeting. Mrs. Brewer has challenged the president's decision to withdraw National Guardsmen from the Mexican border. In 2010, she signed what was at the time the nation's toughest immigration crackdown, a law the Obama administration is challenging in federal court.
In addition, the Justice Department is under fire for its handling of the failed Fast and Furious gun-running operation into Mexico, and for its civil rights probe of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Mr. Salmon said of the president, "Here's a guy who has sued the state of Arizona over our immigration laws. He's clearly picked a fight."
The Obama campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Republicans say the administration's record on border security, immigration and the environment doesn't bode well for Democratic Senate and House candidates this year.
"I can only hope [Mr. Obama] thinks Arizona is in play and spends a ton of money here," Mr. Salmon said. "He's going to waste it."
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