- Associated Press - Monday, February 20, 2012

FLORENCE, Ariz. — Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu built a reputation as a rising, conservative star by taking a hard-line stance against illegal immigration, attacking the Obama administration and appearing alongside Sen. John McCain in a 2010 re-election ad in which Mr. McCain urged federal officials to just “complete the danged fence.”

But Sheriff Babeu’s conservative image took a beating over the weekend as he was forced to confirm publicly that he is gay and was involved in a relationship with a Mexican immigrant who claims the sheriff threatened to have him deported if he revealed their relationship.

Sheriff Babeu denies any wrongdoing, and has vowed to continue his battle for the GOP nomination in an extremely conservative rural congressional district. He recognizes he is fighting an uphill battle, especially in a state where family values, as defined by a large evangelical Christian and Mormon population, often battle fierce, anti-immigrant beliefs to define conservatism.

At a lengthy press conference, Sheriff Babeu said he hopes voters will stick with him.

His competitors think that’s unlikely. Arizona state Sen. Ron Gould says Sheriff Babeu is sure to lose major support among the family-values voters who oppose gay marriage.

Sheriff Babeu previously avoided a public stance on gay rights, but came out in favor of them on Saturday.

“I can be a supporter and get out there and help articulate as we progress as a culture and a society, that there should be individual liberties and there should be individual freedoms,” Sheriff Babeu said. “For any other person to define somebody else’s relationship and say it is not OK, that is not who we are as Americans.”

Saturday’s revelation already led Sheriff Babeu to call presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s staff to say he would step down from his post as state campaign co-chairman. Sheriff Babeu campaigned with Mr. Romney and was featured in robocalls in Iowa attacking Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was then seeking the GOP nomination.

“Sheriff Babeu has stepped down from his volunteer position with the campaign so he can focus on the allegations against him. We support his decision,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement.

Some political observers think Sheriff Babeu’s career could be over.

“There is no question that his budding congressional campaign is over,” longtime Arizona Republican political consultant Sean Noble wrote on his blog. “Because it is a Republican primary in a conservative district, it’s likely that the thing that hurts him the most is that he was in a gay relationship.”

Others aren’t sure it’s the end, but they said there’s no doubt he will be hurt.

“It obviously has implications for a congressional race. There’s just no question about it,” said Bruce Merrill, an Arizona State University political science professor emeritus and a longtime pollster. “I don’t see how any reasonable person cannot think that this is going to hurt him, particularly with the constituency that he has built, which is a very evangelical, right-wing, family-oriented conservative constituency.”

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