PHOENIX -- There's not much doubt about what issue is moving Arizona voters this year.
Campaign signs near Flagstaff in the north proclaim "secure the border," while in the south both Democrats and Republicans tout their involvement with the Minuteman volunteers who patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, and campaign polls show immigration dwarfs other concerns on voters' minds.
In the 8th Congressional District, where a spirited primary to fill the seat of retiring Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe comes to a head Tuesday, immigration is the top issue for 60 percent of voters, according to surveys done by one of the Republican candidates, Mike Hellon.
The next closest issue is education at 9 percent.
"Not since 1974, the Watergate years, has one issue dominated an election," Mr. Hellon said at a candidate forum in Tucson last month.
With the U.S. Senate seat and two of the state's eight congressional seats being seriously contested, and with all three currently held by Republicans, Arizona is a battleground in the fight for control of Congress, and immigration is the leading fight.
Candidates on both sides say that if Democrats are able to compete in a Republican-leaning state like Arizona it bodes well for their national chances.
"If Republicans can't retain seats in states like Arizona, control of the U.S. Senate would be in jeopardy," said Sen. Jon Kyl, the Republican incumbent up for re-election. "But I think as John Kerry found out, this is not a state that is going to go Democratic."
Mr. Kyl is being challenged by Jim Pederson, a wealthy shopping-center developer and first-time political candidate who has promised to give Arizona voters a choice for Senate -- something that's been rare over the past three decades.
Meanwhile, heated races are being fought in the 5th Congressional District, which covers the tony towns east of Phoenix, and in the 8th Congressional District, which runs from Tucson south to Mexico and east to New Mexico.
Democrats' eyes have traditionally been larger than their stomachs in Arizona.
A major push in 2002 to win both of the state's new House seats fell short, with Democrats earning a 1-1 split. Two years later, Mr. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, spent time during the summer campaigning in the state, but abandoned his efforts and ended up losing it by nine percentage points, even more than Al Gore lost by in 2000.
Mr. Kyl won re-election in 2000 with nearly 80 percent of the vote, and the state's senior senator, John McCain, a Republican, won re-election in 2004 with 77 percent.
Mr. Pederson acknowledged there hasn't been a competitive Senate race since the 1970s, but he says that history is misleading, and points to the election of Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, four years ago as a foothold. He vows to give voters another choice this year.
"We have two congressional seats I think we can win, and I think we have a Senate race we can win. So if we do that, the congressional delegation is going to be split straight down the middle, same amount of Republicans as Democrats. And that's going to be huge," said Mr. Pederson, who was Democrats' state party chairman in 2002, when Miss Napolitano won.
Mr. Kyl, though, said Miss Napolitano's race was not a realignment, and points to Republicans' five percentage-point advantage over Democrats in party registration.
"Even though it's a state of tremendous growth, a state in flux, with some things being re-identified, it's been remarkably stable from a political point of view," he said, questioning why Democrats see a chance for a pickup.
"They're looking for places of opportunity, naturally, and I think they misread the situation."
Recent public polls show Mr. Kyl leading by anywhere from 10 to 17 percentage points, though both candidates say that race has yet to engage fully. For now, the two men exchange barbs in television ads and practice politics on the small scale, speaking at Rotary Clubs and, in the case of Mr. Pederson, one-on-one and small-group meetings with business owners.
They differ on the war in Iraq, with Mr. Pederson calling for a plan to withdraw, though he avoids using the word "timetable." And with Mr. Kyl holding one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, the two men differ on social issues from stem-cell research to the implementation of the Medicare prescription-drug program.
Mr. Kyl says voters will make their decision based on his record, and he touts work he did on a key water project as an example of the expertise he brings.
Mr. Pederson, meanwhile, is still introducing himself to voters in a largely self-financed campaign. He criticizes Mr. Kyl and links him to President Bush on issues such as stem-cell research and the Medicare prescription-drug bill's prohibition against negotiating for lower prices.
He is also proposing a 25 percent cut in the payroll tax, and promises to be the "best tax-cutter of any senator in that body."
Still, both men say immigration vies with the war in Iraq as the top concern they hear in conversations with voters.
Mr. Kyl has been a top leader on the issue for several years, sponsoring a bill with Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, that stakes out a middle ground, boosting border security and creating a temporary-worker program, but requiring illegal aliens to go home instead of creating a new path to citizenship.
He voted against the Senate bill this year that increased legal immigration through a new worker program and also divided illegal aliens into groups, offering a direct path to citizenship to illegal aliens here more than five years and a more complicated path to citizenship to those here between two and five years.
Mr. Kyl says he is open to offering a chance for citizenship to some longtime illegal aliens, but he disagreed with the Senate bill's criteria.
"Base it on real roots, not just time," he said, pointing to possibilities such as marriage to an American citizen, people that have children, own property or have a business. "I wouldn't say more stringent but more comprehensive and more substantive. It's not simply an artificial time limit."
Mr. Pederson, meanwhile, says he supports the Senate bill and the two-year/five-year split in path to citizenship.
He acknowledged that voters' first demand is always to secure the border, but said that when voters are asked what to do about illegal aliens now here, "I'm saying two-thirds would favor some kind of legal status, or a path to legal status."
The first test for immigration comes next week in the 8th Congressional District, where it is essentially the only issue among the five Republicans running for the nomination and is a top issue for the six Democrats seeking their party's nod.
The district stretches across ground zero for illegal immigration, with some estimates saying half of all illegal border crossings occur here.
The Republican primary offers the full array of choices on immigration:
•Steve Huffman, a moderate state lawmaker who was endorsed by the retiring Republican incumbent, Mr. Kolbe, supports a path to citizenship for illegal aliens. Mirroring the calls of some in Congress, he says the key is to find a bill to pass, not to hold fast on enforcing the border first.
"We've got a bunch of folks back in Washington who feel content taking positions but not getting anything done," Mr. Huffman said.
•Mr. Hellon finds himself in the middle. He has a detailed border security plan and endorses a new temporary-worker program, though he opposes a path to citizenship for current illegal aliens, calling that amnesty.
"We need less new legislation, and we need a federal government willing to enforce the laws," he said.
•Randy Graf, who challenged Mr. Kolbe on the immigration issue two years ago, is the enforcement-first candidate, arguing that nothing can be done until the flow of illegals is stopped. Mr. Graf proudly touts his involvement with the Minutemen who patrol the border, and has campaigned with both Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, and Chris Simcox, the head of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.
Mr. Graf said his strong enforcement message can win not only the primary but also the general election in this swing district.
"This election cycle, this issue has come to national prominence, finally, and because of it, I think the voters have an opportunity to send a message to Washington, 'We've had enough,'" Mr. Graf said.
The race took a stark turn last week when the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) committed to spending $122,000 on television ads for Mr. Huffman in the run-up to the primary. Some national Republicans have made it clear they feel Mr. Huffman is the only candidate who can win the seat in the general election in November, based on his immigration views and his moderate record.
That outraged the other four candidates in the race, who released a joint statement yesterday saying the support broke private promises made by NRCC officials to remain neutral in the spirited primary.
On the Democratic side, one candidate, Bill Johnson, proudly proclaims himself a "single-issue candidate" -- and that issue is border security. But the two leading candidates -- former state lawmaker Gabrielle Giffords and former local news anchor Patty Weiss -- place it lower on their list of issues. Miss Giffords cites education, while Mrs. Weiss places health care and public financing of congressional campaigns at the top.
Democrats also hope to capture the 5th Congressional District from Republicans and incumbent Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who has made his name nationally as an advocate for border enforcement. He even voted against last year's House enforcement-only bill because he feared it could lead to a guest-worker program in the future.
Challenger Harry Mitchell is running straight at Mr. Hayworth on charges that the 12-year incumbent is wrapped up in the scandal concerning Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Though Mr. Hayworth has donated $2,250 to charity to cover direct contributions from Abramoff, Mr. Mitchell has demanded Mr. Hayworth also give up another $150,000 that represents donations from clients of Abramoff.
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