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Romney’s early push paying off in Arizona

A quiet contrast to Michigan struggle

Eric Thayer / Getty Images

CHANDLER, Ariz. - This state is holding the other primary on Tuesday, the one without all the attack ads and paeans to the golden age of American auto manufacturing.

But if the Republican presidential race comes down to a battle for delegates, it could be just as significant because, unlike Michigan, it awards all its delegates to the winner. The support the candidates have shown for the state’s strict immigration law could also have major repercussions in the general election, imperiling the Republican nominee’s ability to woo Hispanic voters.

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The fight for Arizona is being waged almost in stealth fashion. And although Rick Santorum is within striking distance of Mitt Romney, his campaign worries it may be too late for him to close the gap.

More than 100,000 early ballots were cast weeks ago, well before Santorum rocketed back into contention with his trio of victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. Romney’s campaign worked assiduously to contact and court those early voters in early February, guaranteeing the former Massachusetts governor a cushion of support no matter what happens on Tuesday.

Santorum, scrambling to make up ground, made his first campaign stop here on Tuesday, and his aides are trying to mobilize Tea Party supporters and conservatives. But they acknowledge they are facing an uphill battle in a state where Romney has the superior organization, establishment backing, and a natural base of support in the state’s sizable Mormon population.

“Our challenge is that given Rick’s momentum is obviously a late surge, we’ve got to overcome the fact that a lot of that early voting are votes in the bank for Romney,’’ said Frank Riggs, a former congressman who is chairman of Santorum’s campaign in Arizona. “I wish we had a little more time. He truly is surging here, so it’s all going to come down to how many ballots were turned in early versus how many come out on Tuesday.’’

In Maricopa County - which includes Phoenix and is the most populous county in the state - 210,500, or about 30 percent, of registered Republican voters sent in early ballots. Most of the votes were sent back soon after they were received on Feb. 2, five days before Santorum’s three-state win streak. Campaigns can get lists of those voters from the state Republican Party and then call them to ask for their support, a strategy that Romney’s team exploited.

“We have been talking to those folks with early ballots, getting Governor Romney’s message to them,’’ said Sarah Nelson, Romney’s director of Western states. “And, of course, we want to be talking to those folks we’ve ID’d as supporters so we can get them out on the 28th, as well. So that’s really been our big push.’’

Arizona has been hit hard by the housing crisis, and its unemployment rate, 8.7 percent, is slightly higher than the national rate of 8.3 percent. The state also remains in the throes of a debate about the sweeping immigration law enacted in 2010. The law, which is being challenged by the Obama administration, requires police to determine the immigration status of any individual they stop or have reason to believe might be in the country illegally.

At the CNN debate in Mesa on Wednesday, Romney called the law “a model’’ and vowed to drop the Obama administration’s lawsuit on “day one’’ of his presidency. He also promised to complete a fence on the US-Mexico border, beef up the US Border Patrol, and allow employers to check the immigration status of their workers.

“You do that and, just as Arizona is finding out, you can stop illegal immigration,’’ he said.

Romney, Santorum, and Newt Gingrich have also courted Joe Arpaio, the hard-line sheriff of Maricopa County, who has gained national attention for conducting immigration raids and making inmates wear pink underwear. The Justice Department has accused Arpaio of unfairly targeting Latinos for arrest and detention.

Santorum spent 20 minutes with the sheriff on Tuesday, just before he and Arpaio spoke to the Maricopa County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day luncheon in Phoenix.

Arpaio, who had backed Rick Perry and supported Romney in 2008, said the candidates have all asked for his endorsement, but he is not planning on making one before Tuesday. With a note of annoyance, he said, “Romney called me a while back; he hasn’t called since. Romney seems to have forgotten my number.’’

Governor Jan Brewer, whose support for the immigration law and finger-wagging confrontation with Obama on a tarmac in Phoenix have energized conservatives, is planning to make an endorsement.

But Democrats are planning to use her backing and the candidates’ support for Arizona’s immigration law to paint the Republican Party as hostile to the nation’s growing Hispanic population. Some Republicans are also worried.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, who has urged the party to soften its stance on immigration, expressed concern after the debate on Wednesday.

“It’s a little troubling, sometimes, when people are appealing to people’s fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective, and that’s kind of where we are,’’ he said on Thursday, after giving a speech in Dallas, according to Fox News. “I think it changes when we get to the general election. I hope.’’

Arizona’s voters have been talking more about the economy. Stratton Hermann, 86, and his wife, Linda, 69, said they lost $1 million they had invested in property at Stellar Airpark, a private airport surrounded by homes and commercial buildings outside Phoenix. “We lost everything when the economy went down,’’ Linda Hermann said. “We used to be really wealthy.’’

They said they are voting for Romney. “We just feel like Romney can save things,’’ she said. “He has in the past.’’

Romney holds a 9-percentage point lead over Santorum in Arizona, according to an average of recent polls compiled by Real Clear Politics. The winner will pocket all of the state’s 29 delegates, while the candidates in Michigan will divide its 30 delegates according to the tally.

Riggs argued that makes Arizona a valuable, if overlooked, battleground.

“Our goal was to make sure Rick finished a strong second in Arizona,’’ he said. “But now we’ve upped our sights and think it’s within our reach to win.’’

Jeff Flake, an Arizona congressman who backs Romney, said that is not likely. “Arizona is Mitt Romney country, it really is,’’ he said. “They’ve worked the early ballots hard.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.
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