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Arizona Race Doesn't Dwell on Immigration

Though important, the issue isn't likely to decide the state's closely watched Senate contest because it defies easy solutions, analysts say.

September 27, 2006|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

TUCSON — Every day, more than 1,000 illegal immigrants pour into Arizona, making it the nation's main gateway for illicit entry into the United States. So no issue figured to be more important in the U.S. Senate race pitting Democrat Jim Pederson against Republican Jon Kyl, Arizona's get-tough incumbent.

But flip on a TV set and this is what you would have seen over the last few weeks: Pederson portraying Kyl as a rubber stamp for President Bush and a shill for oil and pharmaceutical companies; Kyl touting his work on victims' rights and painting his millionaire opponent as a smear artist trying to buy his way into office.

The candidates are not ignoring illegal immigration, which would be like trying not to sweat while standing in the 95-degree heat. Each talks tough and accuses the other of doing nothing.

But neither side expects the issue to be decisive on Nov. 7, and many observers agree. They say the immigration debate is one of several variables, including conditions in Iraq, unhappiness with Washington and the personalities of the two men, that will most likely determine who wins the contest -- and whether Arizona yields one of six seats Democrats need to gain control of the Senate.

Contrary to expectations, the race has been largely devoid of the shrill rhetoric and inflammatory imagery that has fueled so much of the immigration discussion elsewhere, including Washington. Most Arizonans seem to take a nuanced stance; they are eager to stop the flood of illegal migrants but willing to accommodate those already here. In short, the voters have moved ahead of the politicians, analysts say, and grown too sophisticated to accept sound-bite solutions.

"I think what you see is people struggling with humanitarian issues, the terrorist issue, the question of legality, and they're not coming up with straight and easy answers," said Earl de Berge, a nonpartisan pollster who has spent decades sampling public opinion in the state.

A similar dynamic has thwarted efforts in Congress to comprehensively overhaul the nation's immigration laws, despite years of effort by Bush and some of the most powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill. But here in Arizona, the politics are even more confounding.

Start with the split between the state's two Republican U.S. senators, Kyl and presidential aspirant John McCain.

Kyl, who favors an enforcement-first approach, helped lead the fight against legislation championed by Bush and McCain that offered illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship. Pederson, who backs McCain's plan, pointed out the Republicans' disagreement -- even quoting McCain disparaging Kyl's stance -- in one of his first TV ads in April. That drew a quick retort from McCain, who since has been a staple of support in Kyl's advertising.

"It would not serve McCain's interests to lose a Senate seat in his home state," given his hopes for 2008, said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "So whatever their policy differences, he'll go to bat for him any time he can."

There have been other awkward moments. This summer, when Kyl won the union endorsement of Tucson-area Border Patrol officers, the state's biggest newspaper, the Arizona Republic, noted the group's hostility toward McCain and its mocking nickname for the state's senior senator: "Amnesty John."

Kyl's camp acknowledges that the split between the Republicans has made the immigration issue more complicated. But Pederson, a shopping mall developer and former state Democratic chairman, faces political pressures of his own.

Though he laments the toll of illegal immigration -- "our hospitals, schools, jails are being overrun" -- he also must guard against a backlash among Latinos, an important Democratic constituency, as well as others who see shades of demagoguery in the debate.

"I don't think it's the big deal people feel it is," said Democrat Susan Walker, 58, a retired teacher and librarian in Sierra Vista, about 15 miles from the Mexican border. "People down here would scream like a wounded panther if they had to pay $15 for a hamburger, which they would" without a steady supply of cheap labor.

With hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants streaming over the border here each year -- far more than come to California -- there are plenty of people who view immigration as a simple matter: Is a person here legally or not? But most Arizona voters appear to be of two -- or three or four -- minds when it comes to addressing the issue.

Voters strongly support tough measures to seal the border and stop the tide of illegal immigrants, said Bruce Merrill, an Arizona State University pollster. But when it comes to dealing with those already here, voters are "pretty moderate," Merrill said, opposing efforts by Kyl and others to deport the estimated 12 million people thought to be in the country illegally. Of those, about 500,000 live in Arizona; California is home to as many as 3 million.

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