Arizona Race Tests a Hard Line on Immigration

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 12, 2006

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Republican in the race is a firebrand by disposition and design. The Democrat is so low-key his advisers make a point of saying he really is energetic.

The Republican is an immigration hawk who favors cracking down on illegal immigrants and wrote a book called "Whatever It Takes." The Democrat calls himself an immigration realist who would combine tighter border controls with a path toward legal status.

At 47, Republican Rep. J.D. Hayworth has nearly 12 years of experience in Congress. At 65, Democrat Harry Mitchell has none. He does, however, have an artful 35-foot statue in his honor here, where the municipal center and a bar across the street are named for him.

Hayworth is running hard for reelection, describing himself to GOP campaign workers as "not real subtle, and you know exactly where I stand." Mitchell is a local political legend who contends that Hayworth "has a lot of explaining to do," not least about his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The race for Arizona's Republican-dominated 5th District is considered competitive for the first time in a decade. Analysts point to troubles in the White House and Congress, as well as Hayworth's outsize profile on immigration. It all makes for an intriguing contest in an unpredictable state where pollsters see a shift to the center.

It also makes the race something of a referendum on immigration policy.

"Right now, it looks as though the playing field is leveling off," said analyst Earl de Burgh, research director for the independent Rocky Mountain Poll. "Whether Mitchell has the panache to deliver the blow to Hayworth's jaw, I don't know."

Amy Walter, who follows House races for the Cook Political Report, believes Hayworth has the edge in a district that has eight registered Republicans for every five registered Democrats. But the district's substantial slice of independents complicates the picture, as does the image of local Republicans as more moderate and temperate than their congressman.

Two other challenges to Arizona Republicans are being watched closely because of the potential for a Democratic upset. One is the battle to replace retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) in southeastern Arizona's 8th District. The other is the effort by wealthy Phoenix developer Jim Pederson (D) to topple Sen. Jon Kyl (R), a conservative.

"This is no longer the country of Barry Goldwater. There's a thrust toward centrism in Arizona that's very apparent," de Burgh said.

With six terms in Congress, Hayworth, a former offensive lineman, has a way of commanding a stage. He is a large man, though not nearly as large as he used to be. He lost 110 pounds from his peak of 345, thanks to pre-dawn workouts and a stapled stomach.

He did time as a spring-training announcer and Phoenix sports anchor and does dead-on impressions of politicians, notably Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and former vice president Al Gore. He rode the 1994 Republican wave into Congress and cultivated a reputation as a quotable conservative, recently becoming a cable news regular.

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