Immigration Battle Divides Ariz. GOP

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 2, 2008

PHOENIX -- The protesters gather every morning before dawn, monitoring the entrance to a fenced compound called the Macehualli Work Center. They are trying to shut the place down. They wave placards and take photos of anyone driving in to pick up the day laborers who congregate there. They want nothing less than to save America from what they call "the invasion."

"Most of us don't feel safe on the Phoenix streets without being armed," says Wes Pecsok, a contractor who keeps his pistol in an inner vest pocket. "We're not going to be intimidated by these thugs. "

The protesters are members of the Minutemen, Riders USA, United for a Sovereign America. They find a common bond in their rage, their fury at the government, their loathing of Hispanics who have come to the United States illegally. They say that many immigrants carry disease, and kill cops, and rape children.

"We're the Wild West," protester Craig Tillman says with a smile.

The Wild West is actually a rather ordinary-looking, heavily commercialized artery called Bell Road. Mexico is a three-hour drive south of here, but Bell Road and places like it are where the worlds collide, one culture grinding against the other. And in the home state of Sen. John McCain, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, that clash has driven a wedge straight through the Arizona GOP.

The party is controlled at the district level by activists who detest McCain for his sponsorship, with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), of a comprehensive immigration bill that among other things would have provided illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship. They think McCain is a traitor to conservative causes and an advocate for amnesty for illegal immigrants.

"We do not consider him a conservative at all," says Rob Haney, a Republican Party chairman in McCain's home district. The candidate's bus, the Straight Talk Express, should be renamed, Haney says: "We call it the Forked Tongue Express around here. He'll lie about anything."

Said John Acer, a lawyer who, like Haney, showed up last weekend at a meeting of the Republican state committee in Glendale: "He's despicable. Dishonest. Duplicitous." And so it goes, on and on, all these Republicans who wince at the mention of McCain's name, and who can think of few things worse than having the state's senior Republican senator ascend to the White House.

McCain is likely to win the state's Republican primary on Tuesday. He wins elections here in Arizona easily. Party activists don't control the Republicans in voting booths any more than they control the senior senator. But McCain's in-state problems reflect his national quandary as he tries to convince American conservatives that he's one of them.

Once home to Barry Goldwater, Arizona has a credible claim as the birthplace of modern American conservatism. But even Goldwater, late in life, found himself at odds with many conservatives in the state who laced the ideology with social issues that had nothing to do with low taxes and small government.

"I feel badly that, with a lot of these people, Barry Goldwater would be unwelcome," says Grant Woods, a moderate Republican and former Arizona attorney general. "I would hope for Arizona's future in the Republican Party is that it would continue to produce leaders of the caliber of Goldwater, of Sandra Day O'Connor, of John McCain; yet if this posture continues, from the state party, you won't see those leaders come from within the party anymore. Because no one in their right mind would deal with these people."

At the GOP meeting, a few volunteers staffed a McCain table, passing out fliers listing misconceptions about McCain -- playing defense in hostile territory.

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