How the immigrant card stopped working for Arizona's Republicans

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Randy Graf thought 2006 would be his big year to run for Congress. As a conservative Republican from southern Arizona, his biggest issue was immigration, and his attitude was unbendingly tough: militarising the border, rounding up and deporting illegal immigrants and slapping fines on employers who hired workers without proper work-permit documents.

He had reason to think the mood of his electorate, and the country as a whole, was swinging his way. Since September 11, after all, Republican politicians have done very well on "scare" issues such as terrorism and border security. Immigration was topic A in Washington for much of the first part of this year, and a bill even passed the House of Representatives calling for the criminalisation of the 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be working in the country.

But Mr Graf was wrong. The Republicans have lost their magic touch with the electorate rapidly over the past year; the scare tactics do not appear to working any more and public attitudes on immigration have matured, to the point where hardline attitudes like Mr Graf's are, if anything, an embarrassment.

And so the Republicans look set to lose a seat in Arizona's eighth congressional district - covering roughly half of the city of Tucson and the borderlands to the south and east - after holding it for the past 22 years.

Few races in next week's midterms illustrate better why the Republicans appear to be losing their grip on power after 12 years of dominance on Capitol Hill. A party that was once brimming with confidence and rigorous in controlling its message is now divided, demoralised and hamstrung by the very radicalism that has driven its past successes.

The eighth district's outgoing congressman, the moderate Jim Kolbe, has refused to endorse Mr Graf. The entire party establishment, in fact, worked to defeat him in the September party primary. When that did not work, the national party pulled all its funding.

Mr Graf did not help his cause by failing to distance himself from supportive white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. He also embraced a state legislator from the Phoenix area, Russell Pearce, who caused a public furore by proposing a return to Operation Wetback, an Eisenhower-era deportation policy, and sent out campaign literature from the neo-Nazi National Alliance. Mr Graf said in a candidates' debate earlier this month that Mr Pearce was "a very good friend of mine" with whom he agreed entirely.

While other Republican candidates in swing districts are receiving visits from popular national figures such as John McCain, the Arizona senator and presidential aspirant, or Laura Bush, the First Lady, Mr Graf has had to do with Dennis Hastert, the uncharismatic Speaker of the House who is embroiled in the scandal over the disgraced Florida congressman Mark Foley.

All this has been music to the ears of Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat so centrist she used to be a Republican. Ms Giffords, who comes, like Mr Graf, from the state legislature, supports a comprehensive solution to stem the tide of Mexicans risking dehydration and death to cross the desert border. Like President George Bush - who has angered many of the party faithful with his moderate stance on immigration - she wants to secure the border better, but she also wants to institute a formal work-permit programme and lay out a path to citizenship for long-term US residents.

According to Earl de Berge, Arizona's leading public opinion researcher, that is almost exactly where the mainstream electorate stands too. A poll he conducted in May showed that seven out of 10 Arizonans want immigrants to have a legal path to enter the country. Barely 4 per cent agree with the contention, touted by hardliners such as Mr Graf, that the immigrant wave from Mexico poses a terrorist threat.

"The public is maturing on this issue. It's a very different atmosphere from even two years ago," Mr De Berge said. "Some Republicans have tried to use fear of illegal immigrants as a way of deflecting attention from the Iraq war. It's just not working."

With the polls giving her a 12 to 15 point lead, Ms Giffords has spent the week basking in some high-profile attention. On Wednesday, she was embraced by Janet Napolitano, Arizona's Democratic governor, at a meeting of Tucson's cultural and political elite. Yesterday, she was sharing a stage with Bill Clinton.

Mr Graf, meanwhile, is struggling to find anyone still willing to listen to him. On Wednesday, he had a tooth pulled - a portent of where his campaign is going, perhaps - then addressed a community service group whose entire membership barely reaches 30. Wearing a tie emblazoned with the original Declaration of Independence, Mr Graf poked less than charitable fun at Al Gore and pooh-poohed global warming as a "cyclical" phenomenon that was no cause for concern for anybody.

He tried to recast his immigration stance as a by-product of his fiscal conservatism - in other words, worrying that the tide of immigrants was sapping state education and healthcare funds. But it is almost certainly too late for him to start tapping into his inner moderate.