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96 Days to Decide: Republicans Eye Arizona House Seat Once Held by Hayworth

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In this Nov. 16, 2009, file photo, Rep. Harry Mitchell is shown at a community meeting at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. (AP Photo)

Arizona Rep. Harry Mitchell's response to the decision Wednesday by a federal judge to knock down portions of the Arizona illegal immigration law isn't likely to appease his opponents in the race to defeat the sophomore Democrat who won the seat from Republican J.D. Hayworth in 2006.

In fact, the Republicans vying in the Aug. 24 primary to take on Mitchell are prepared to argue illegal immigration with Mitchell right through to the Nov. 2 general election.

After Judge Susan Bolton issued a partial injunction Wednesday stripping the Arizona law of three of its most potent enforcement provisions, Mitchell repeated his oft-stated position that neither the Arizona law nor the federal lawsuit opposing the law will fix the state's immigration problem.

"Illegal immigration affects our state more than it does any other -- more than half of all illegal crossings over the U.S.-Mexico border happen in Arizona. The federal government has a responsibility to secure the border and fix our broken immigration system, but hasn't done so, and Arizona continues to shoulder the burden," he said in a statement.

"There are no victors today, except those who want to use this protracted litigation as a means to grandstand and score political points, instead of actually rolling up their sleeves and getting to work to help fix the problem," Mitchell added.

"I think Congressman Mitchell's response is consistent with his chronic performance of not being able to come out on a position before (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi tells him how to respond," said Jim Ward, a top Republican contender in the Arizona House race. 

"I think you're about to find that (Democrats) are going to lose three congressional seats here in Arizona, particularly because of the national reaction to the Arizona immigration law," said David Schweikert, Ward's main opposition in the GOP primary. Five Arizona seats are held by Democrats in the U.S. House.

While Mitchell's reticence to get political may seem above the fray to some, his opponents say Mitchell's middle-of-the-road approach won't sustain him in this fiercely anti-incumbent atmosphere.

"Cearly, Harry Mitchell has done next to nothing to fill out government's basic responsibility," said Ward, a former vice president of Lucas Films who launched the original marketing campaign for golf star Tiger Woods

According to a July 25 Arizona Republic/WestGroup Research poll, 61 percent of registered voters in Arizona support SB 1070, which prior to being struck down gave state and local law enforcement the authority to request someone's immigration status when he or she is stopped for another violation. 

Mitchell's campaign could not be reached for comment, but the congressman's supporters refute charges that he has nuanced his positions in order to appease centrist voters or the independents who make up a sizable portion of constituents in Maricopa County. 

For instance, backers point out that Mitchell joined forces with Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., in 2009 to get millions of dollars of increased funding at the border. In May, Mitchell introduced a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that called for a deployment of at least 3,000 additional National Guard troops to the Arizona southern border.

"Congressman Mitchell has worked incredibly hard for the people of this district since he was first elected," said Andy Stone, Western regional press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But Schweikert, the Maricopa County treasurer who ran and lost against Mitchell in 2008, said the approach to border control doesn't stop with bringing in soldiers for support positions.

"It is a big border and sending 1,200 folks to do paperwork and wash trucks won't make a dent," he said. "You have to enforce the laws as they're written; you have to be willing to build fencing."

Schweikert added that auto insurance rates are higher in Arizona, compared to the rest of the country, because of its undocumented population. "We carry a big financial burden to make the rest of the country feel good."

Ward added that it's not just Mitchell's position on immigration that's problematic to district voters. Both he and Schweikert have focused their campaigns on the economy and job creation as they head into the Republican primary.

"You have to stop spending. You have to cut up the credit cards and you have to make very tough cuts across the board," Ward said.

Raising taxes is "antithetical to clawing your way out of a recession," he added, noting his support for an extension of the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, as well as a sixth-month moratorium on all payroll taxes for small businesses, among other initiatives.

Ward also pointed to Mitchell's record on health care reform, claiming he first told Arizonans he would not support the legislation and then later cast his vote in support of the bill.

"It's one thing to be on the wrong side of an issue," Ward said of Mitchell. "It's another thing to tell your constituents one thing and then do another."

"That has enraged, I believe, a lot of constituents," Ward said.

Mitchell, once deemed unbeatable, is now in a toss-up contest for the 5th Congressional District in the traditionally Republican-leaning Maricopa County. But his backers say his 2006 victory over Hayworth is proof that the career legislator can hold his own in a swing district.

"He's battle tested," Stone said. "When he first won in 2006, he beat a six-term incumbent with all the advantages that come with incumbency."

Mitchell, who as of June 30 raised $1.4 million, certainly has a sizable war chest compared to his competitors, with $1.1 million on hand. Ward raised $640,000 as of June 30, while Schweikert raised $632,000 during the same time period. But Ward has a lot less money to spend before his primary -- $283,000 compared to $434,000 for Schweikert, according to Federal Election Commission findings. Four other candidates -- Susan Bitter Smith, Lee Gentry, Chris Salvino and Mark Spinks -- also are in the race for the GOP primary.

One analyst said Mitchell's middle-of-the-road approach won't sustain him in this fiercely anti-incumbent atmosphere.

"There are a lot of Republicans who want to send a message to Pelosi and (President) Obama," said Isaac Wood, an election editor at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "The more they can say a vote for Mitchell is a vote for Pelosi and Obama, the more people are going to hesitate in voting for him."

Schweikert, meanwhile, was looking at the race closer to him, casting Ward and Mitchell as two birds of the same feather.

"The No. 1 difference between me and my opponents is that I'm the only conservative," he told FoxNews.com. "And I'm the only conservative with a proven record."

Ward called that a phony argument, noting that Schweikert has tried and failed to win the district twice before. He added that he's got the support of Rep. John Shadegg, a well-respected conservative from Arizona's 3rd District.

"I'm the only candidate who can beat Harry Mitchell ... and carry on Shadegg's conservative record in Washington, D.C.," he said.