PHOENIX (AP) – Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is drawing larger crowds as he continues to criticize immigration policies in stark language that has revealed a deep divide between immigration hawks and moderates who are trying to avoid alienating Hispanic voters.
On Saturday, Trump was scheduled to campaign in Nevada and then in Arizona, a hub of immigrant and drug smuggling where the real estate developer and reality TV star has developed a large following. A rally in Phoenix was first planned at a posh resort that could handle about 1,000 guests, but organizers moved it to the city's convention center.
Trump's descriptions of Mexican immigrants bringing drugs and crime to the U.S. and being rapists have been roundly denounced as offensive. But his message about the broken border has resonated with many in the GOP, especially after an immigrant who was deported multiple times was accused of killing a woman on a San Francisco pier.
In Los Angeles for a rally Friday evening, Trump brought together people who said their relatives had been killed by immigrants in the U.S. illegally. "The illegals come in and the illegals killed their children," he said. "And we better get smart in the United States."
Arizona's major Chamber of Commerce group, both U.S. senators and a host of other GOP backers heaped their ire on Trump as the visit to Phoenix drew near. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who met presidential hopefuls Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker when they were in the state, is snubbing Trump. Protesters like the ones who greeted Trump in Los Angeles were expected.
Maricopa County's tough-on-immigration sheriff, Joe Arpaio, is set to speak before Trump at the convention center event.
Sen. Jeff Flake, who with Sen. John McCain sponsored a 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill that stalled when it reached the House, said Trump's views "are coarse, ill-informed and inaccurate, and they are not representative of the Republican Party. As an elected Republican official, I'm disappointed the county party would host a speaker that so damages the party's image."
McCain, in a statement issued Friday, said, "If the Republican nominee for president does not support comprehensive immigration reform and border security policy, we have no chance of defeating Hillary Clinton and winning the White House in 2016."
But A.J. LaFaro, former head of the Maricopa County Republican Party, rejected those views. "With regards to McCain, Flake and the chambers, I don't respect any of those people anyway, so why would I care?" Lafaro said. "They're not representative of my conservative Christian values. I understand that Mr. Trump is saying what a lot of people here in the United States, I would like to think a majority of the people here in the Unites States, are thinking."
Trump's comments after a June 16 campaign kickoff speech helped revive immigration as a campaign issue but also prompted a series of cancellations from companies that do business with him or his companies.
Trump begins Saturday speaking in Las Vegas at the libertarian-minded gathering Freedom Fest. Nevada is 27 percent Hispanic and a key state for Republican candidates. His appearance at the conference, which bills itself as an egalitarian event for free-thinkers to discuss and celebrate liberty, was a recent addition to a lineup that included Rubio on Friday night.