A Border Patrol vehicle sits along the border fence in Nogales, Ariz. The… (Jae C. Hong, Associated…)
Reporting from Tempe, Ariz. — As the Republican candidates argued onstage over one another's conservative merit badges, Francisco Heredia balanced a laptop on his legs, waiting patiently to tweet. At any moment, he thought, they'll try to show who is toughest on illegal immigrants.
But when Wednesday night's debate got to illegal immigration, some Latino activists found the rhetoric muted.
"I expected it to be more heated," said Heredia, 29, a community organizer involved in Latino voter registration. "For it to be in Arizona, it was like they talked about it for 10 minutes and it was over."
The candidates used familiar language about border fences and punishment for employers who hire illegal immigrants, but their responses seemed perfunctory, said Lydia Guzman, director of Respect/Respeto, an immigrant advocacy group.
"I think the people asking the questions wanted a more extreme answer," she said. "But there weren't a lot of fireworks from the candidates. It was toned down."
Activists were hoping to use fierce rhetoric from the candidates — along with recent anti-illegal immigration steps they view as extreme — to help boost Latino voter registration and even turn Arizona into a battleground state. Since 1948, Arizona has gone to a Democrat only once in a presidential election (to Bill Clinton in 1996).
Such a shift would probably require a combination of factors, including a large turnout from the state's more moderate voters, said Bruce Merrill, a veteran pollster and professor emeritus at Arizona State University. Four years ago, Barack Obama didn't contest Arizona and lost to John McCain, the state's senior senator, by 8 percentage points.
But the very idea that Arizona could be up for grabs this year underscores the way illegal immigration continues to shade the state's political landscape.
Intense opposition to illegal immigration made conservative heroes out of Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Brewer signed SB1070, which would require people to carry proof of their legal status and require police to check the status of those they lawfully stop and suspect of being in the country illegally. (The law is on hold, pending a court challenge by the Obama administration.)
Earlier this month, a state Senate panel voted to create an armed volunteer militia to guard the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the issue also has produced fallout. Latino activists led a successful recall late last year against Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, the once-popular architect of SB1070.
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, who is running for Congress, resigned from a volunteer position with Romney's campaign last week after being accused of threatening to deport an ex-boyfriend, a Mexican national. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Babeu appeared in a 2008 presidential campaign ad with John McCain, walking along the Mexican border as the Arizona senator declared, "Complete the danged fence."
Stan Barnes, a lobbyist and former Republican state senator in Arizona, said there is a risk to the GOP from the fast-growing Latino population if a substantial part of it feels aggrieved by the party's politics. For the general election, many observers expect Republicans to deliver a strong message against illegal immigration, without resorting to the most barbed language.
"It's fair to say the Democratic side of the aisle is hoping the Republicans kowtow to the right so far they can't bring themselves to the reasonable middle in November," Barnes said.
He said he thinks the Latino vote in Arizona is overstated as far as being a threat to Republicans in the general election. But given demographic shifts, that won't last forever, Barnes said.
"It's a calculated risk worth taking for center-right candidates to be clear and strident on immigration at the risk of alienating some Democratic Hispanic voters," he said. "It's still the ruthlessly calculated play. But that will end someday."
Latino activists in Arizona often cite California as a state that went solidly Democratic in large part because of harsh anti-illegal immigrant measures. But by the 1990s, when the measures were unleashed, California was already a "purple" state, or one that toggled between both parties.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, tough illegal immigration policies still play well with a broad conservative base, and have inspired similar measures in other states, including Alabama and Georgia.
Merrill, the longtime pollster, said that while the Latino vote may not have matured enough to endanger a Republican presidential candidate, it should not be underestimated. He said that while Arizona's most steadfast voters are its most conservative, the state's broad electorate is much more moderate.
Merrill said that polling he's done shows that illegal immigration remains a huge issue and that most people, including Latinos, generally feel strongly about securing the border.
"I don't want open borders. We have to protect our country," said Guzman, of Respect/Respeto. "But this has become not just an anti-immigrant thing. It's become anti-Latino."
But opinions vary greatly when it comes to what to do about illegal immigrants who have been in the country for years, Merrill said.
Not every Latino is liberal about illegal immigration, and even some conservative and Republican Latino groups have come out against some of Arizona's measures to deal with the issue.
If the state has a large turnout, beyond just more Latinos, Merrill said, that may make things more interesting as early as November.
"I think the debate was for a larger audience," Guzman said. "This was not a debate for Arizona."