WASHINGTON – The candidates jockeying for prominence in Arizona's 8th Congressional District race are no different from any other Republican or Democrat in America now arguing over the best way to fix the country's "broken borders" — except one.
They are vying to represent a district that is contending with thousands of non-Americans trying to sneak through its backyard every day.
"More than half of the immigrants who are entering this country illegally are entering through my district," said Patty Weiss, one of eight Democrats seeking the seat held by outgoing Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe.
"There's only one issue: It's immigration," said Mike Hellon, one of 13 Republicans running to replace Kolbe on the greater Tucson district. "We're on ground zero on that issue in respect to the rest of the country."
Republican Randy Graf, a top contender with the toughest stance on immigration, said about 4,000 to 5,000 illegal immigrants are crossing the border each day into the 8th District and next door in the 7th Congressional District, both which line the Mexican border.
"The people living here have been living with this for years," he said. But this year, he notes, Washington seems to be listening. "This issue will be front and center."
Strictly conservative or liberal approaches aren't necessarily going to work in this district, which is nearly equally divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents, with a slight leaning toward Republicans. Kolbe, who is serving his 11th term in the House, is known for his moderate, pragmatic political touch. He's been fiscally conservative on economic issues, liberal on social ones.
In recent years, Kolbe has voted against a ban on partial birth abortion, but supported individual investment accounts and oil drilling in Alaska.
He also supports the guest worker plan sponsored by Republican Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., — a plan also pursued by President Bush.
Arizona's other senator, Republican Jon Kyl, is sponsoring a similar bill, but it would compel illegal immigrants to go home before applying for guest worker status.
In a press conference May 5, Kolbe endorsed Steve Huffman, an Arizona state legislator, who worked for Kolbe's campaigns throughout the 1990s. Huffman is leading his fellow Republicans in the money race so far, raising $239,659 as of the last quarter filing.
"I believe he's the best candidate and the candidate who can win," Kolbe said. "That's a clear two-fer."
But election analysts say the outcome of this race is anything but clear. Voters here are independent-minded and will cross over to other parties depending on the candidate. President Bush won this district over Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., 53 percent to 46 percent in 2004.
"I think generally they look at the candidate, rather than the party registration," said Huffman, who called Kolbe a "great fit" for the district over the years.
But the Democratic leadership here is not sitting on the sidelines when it comes to immigration, said Matt Weisman, spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party. Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, up for re-election, has been tough on the issue, blaming Washington, D.C., for not addressing her state's border problems sooner, and even declaring a state of emergency last year over the illegal alien problem.
"Arizona Democrats want tough border enforcement and realistic, sensible immigration reform," Weisman said, noting he believes Democrats are in the zone of where most Arizonans are on this issue. While a more hard-line tack like Graf's might win the GOP primary, said Weisman, it won't woo voters in the general election.
"If Republicans nominate someone whose views are out of the mainstream of this district, then Democrats have a really good chance of picking up this seat," he said.
Graf, who unlike the majority of the top-tier candidates in the race does not support some sort of guest worker program for illegal immigrants, preferring to call the president's proposal "amnesty," cautioned against such assumptions — especially since he was able to get 43 percent to Kolbe's 57 percent in the 2004 primary.
"Quite frankly, we will get the vast majority of those independent voters who are fed up with business as usual," said Graf, a former state senator.
Huffman is second in fundraising only to Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, the youngest woman ever to serve in the state Senate. She left her post in 2005 to run for Kolbe's seat and has so far raised $570,230, according to the latest filings.
Giffords is in a tight primary race with Weiss, Arizona's first woman television evening newscast anchor, a face in the Tucson media market for three decades. She has raised $183,450 so far. Hellon, a former state GOP chairman, has raised $102,440, just behind Graf, with $130,812. Analysts agree that these top fundraisers reflect the serious contenders in the Sept. 12 primaries.
"I would simply call it close and competitive," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, and author of the online "Crystal Ball" election tip sheet.
That Graf was able to get such a good showing in the 2004 primary, particularly since he ran strongly on immigration issues, shows his strength in the district cannot be written off, say analysts. However, Kolbe had a successful 22-year run as a Republican moderate and it might be that is what the district still wants.
"For one thing, Kolbe was not somebody who believed in bumper sticker politics, he was a very thoughtful member of Congress," said Garrick Taylor, spokesman for the Arizona Republican Party, which is not endorsing a candidate before the primary. "There are a lot of people who might disagree with Kolbe on immigration policy, but they wouldn't say he didn't give it a lot of thought. He's not a knee-jerk reactionary."
Huffman said there are clearly " a lot of other issues" the candidates are talking about on the campaign trail — from taxes and gasoline prices to foreign policy.
"But you can't go into any primary without folks asking you what you are going to do about securing the border," he said.
While most of the Democrats and Republicans on the top tier of the ticket are pretty close in their answers on the issue, Weiss said Democrats have the advantage of national wariness against Washington Republicans — a sentiment that could give her the edge in this tightly competitive race.
"Many people are frustrated with what is happening in Washington," she said.
But Republicans say that while an anti-incumbent wave may be on the horizon, it does not necessarily affect this race for an open seat.
"Ultimately, every election is about the candidate running. It's hard to nationalize a (congressional) election," Huffman said.