Arizona Primary Could Push Republicans Back to the Right on Immigration

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Reported by Matthew Jaffe and Jordan Fabian:

The Republican presidential candidates have recently gone silent on the lightning-rod issue of immigration, but that could change  soon with the Arizona primary fast approaching.

In the past few months, the GOP presidential hopefuls seemed to change their positions on immigration depending on the state in which they are campaigning.

In Iowa, for example, Mitt Romney came out against the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for some children of undocumented immigrants who attend college or serve in the military. But a few weeks later in Latino-heavy Florida, Romney signaled that he might  support a modified version of the legislation that only  recognized military service.

But the candidates' tone on immigration could shift again once they hit Arizona, a state that in 2010 became the epicenter of the contentious  immigration debate when Republican Gov. Jan Brewer enacted a strict new law that sent shock waves reverberating around the nation. The law ordered immigrants to carry their registration documents at all times and  that police question them if there was reason to suspect  they were in the country illegally.

If the past is prologue, consider this: Earlier in the GOP primary, a handful of candidates traveled to Arizona to meet with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his outspoken stance against illegal immigrants. Arpaio eventually endorsed Rick Perry. Last month in South Carolina - a state with a similarly strict immigration law - Romney touted the endorsement of the law's author, Kris Kobach, who also helped write  SB 1070 law in Arizona.

In other words, expect the Republicans to once again veer to the right.

Such a move might pay off in the Feb. 28 Arizona primary  but could have severe consequences for them in the general election. About 18 percent of Arizona's eligible voters are Latino, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, and unlike in Florida, Latinos in Arizona tend to vote for Democrats and are more mobilized around the immigration issue.

Only 7 percent of Arizona GOP primary voters were Latino in 2008, and that's when home-state Sen. John McCain was on the ballot as the Republican nominee. In the 2010 governor's race, which was largely seen as a referendum on Brewer's immigration law, 71 percent of Latinos backed the Democratic candidate, Terry Goddard. Brewer, however, won re-election.

But if the eventual Republican nominee - whether it's Romney or one of his remaining rivals - alienates Latinos and independents in Arizona to such an extent because of their immigration views, it's not inconceivable that the traditionally-Republican state, which carries 11 electoral votes, could back President Obama in November.

That would be a huge blow for the GOP. Except for Bill Clinton's victory in Arizona in 1996, the state has voted Republican since 1952. One win in the past 60 years is not a statistic likely to give Democrats a lot of reason for optimism, but they clearly believe  the state is in play: Obama senior adviser David Axelrod traveled there late last year to meet with volunteers, community leaders, campaign staff and local elected officials,and the Democratic National Committee has already hit the airwaves there, including setting up a phone bank directed at Latinos. And there have already been signs of political backlash against supporters of the law.

Voters in November recalled state Senate President Russell Pearce, the chief sponsor of SB 1070. Simply put, Republicans are playing with fire if they again veer to the right on immigration. They will have plenty of time before the primary to do so. There's also a debate Feb. 22 in Mesa. Romney, for one, has already been campaigning in the state. "My conservatism did not come so much from reading the writings of great conservative scholars as it did from living my life, my family my faith, my business," Romney said Monday at a rally in Mesa.

The latest poll of likely Arizona voters shows Rick Santorum is riding a wave of momentum and gaining on Romney, who was expected to win the contest. Romney leads by 7 percentage points over the former Pennsylvania senator. That could prompt the former Massachusetts governor to talk tough on immigration to obtain an edge with the state's conservative GOP primary voters, for whom immigration is a major issue.

In Arizona, especially the southern part of the state, immigration - and border control - will be a far more important issue; the state has become one of the prime areas for illegal border crossings. So Republican voters there will likely want Romney and his rivals to veer as far to the right on immigration as possible. Romney is arguably in the best position to pivot right again on immigration. Romney's immigration proposal that, if they are denied jobs, illegal immigrants will "self-deport" may be to the liking of some GOP voters there. Newt Gingrich, for his part, has voiced a more moderate immigration stance than Romney, something that could hurt the former House speaker among more conservative Arizonans.

And in addition to Kobach's endorsement, Romney also has the backing of Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, who is famous for appearing in a television advertisement for McCain's 2010 Senate re-election campaign in which the senator said he wanted to "complete the danged fence." It all presents a risky proposition for the GOP candidates: Hold the line on immigration and risk losing the Arizona primary, or veer to the right and risk a general election backlash. In a state where Latinos have accounted for nearly 40 percent of the population growth in the past decade, there are no easy answers.

Matthew Jaffe covers the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision. Jordan Fabian is political editor for Univision in English.