Immigration a Hot Issue in Southern Arizona District Immigration is a hot-button issue in 2006, and nowhere is it hotter than in this southern Arizona district. Incumbent GOP Rep. Jim Kolbe, a moderate, is retiring, and Republicans have nominated a hardline anti-immigration former state representative, Randy Graf, to succeed him. Democrats say this is a top target and have rallied behind state Sen. Gabrielle Giffords.
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Immigration a Hot Issue in Southern Arizona District

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Immigration a Hot Issue in Southern Arizona District

Immigration a Hot Issue in Southern Arizona District

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New poll numbers out this morning seem to confirm this trend. A Newsweek poll puts President Bush's approval rating at an all-time low of 33 percent. In one House race, Arizona's 8th Congressional District, change is inevitable. Eleven term incumbent Jim Kolbe, a moderate Republican, is retiring. And the Democratic candidate to replace him is closer to Kolbe's views than the Republican is, especially on immigration issues in this border district. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS: Arizona's 8th is a big district, 9,000 square miles in the southeast corner of the state. Eighty percent of the district's voters are in the booming Tucson area, the New West. The rest are in the Old West, towns like Tombstone, Bisbee, and along the Mexican border, Douglas and Naco - all places impacted by illegal immigration, an issue that's the focus, almost exclusively, of Republican nominee Randy Graf.

Mr. RANDY GRAF (Republican Congressional Candidate): We can go out and talk about a lot of other issues - health care, education, crime - talk about all of it, but when it comes down to questions and answers at the end of the day, 90 percent of the questions are about our border, national security, and what we're going to do about it.

ROBBINS: Graf, a former state legislator, is speaking to some of his strongest supporters, about 50 members of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, gathered on a southern Arizona ranch for their twice-yearly desert patrol. Underneath the podium: a banner reading Secure Our Borders First, which is exactly what Graf wants to do about it - seal the border with fences, increase the number of Border Patrol agents, and force illegal immigrants to leave their jobs.

Mr. GRAF: Border Patrol needs to be quadrupled or quintupled in size to have the effective manpower to make sure that we stop the illegal immigration process in its tracks. Don't let them enter the country to where we have to try to find them and round them up.

ROBBINS: Randy Graf got the Republican nomination by energizing his base. A lot of candidates would then move to the middle for the general election. Not Graf. He thinks the middle will come to him. And that's why voters like Jenny Kuniglio(ph), who calls herself a Grafite, has long supported him.

Ms. JENNY KUNIGLIO (Graf Supporter): He didn't waver, even if it wasn't popular to be talking about the border issues at certain times. He's steadfast, and I knew I could count on him.

Ms. GABRIELLE GIFFORDS (Democratic Congressional Candidate): I wanted to come over and say hello. I'm Gabrielle Giffords.

Unidentified Man #1: Glad to meet you.

Ms. GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: I'm running for Congress...

ROBBINS: Graf's Democratic opponent, Gabrielle Giffords, is also a former state legislator. She works the buffet line at a veterans and veteran widows luncheon at the Tanque Verde Guest Ranch in Tucson. The folks in line greet Giffords graciously. Of course they're captive. No one's going to leave the lunch line.

Ms. GIFFORDS: ...interrupt. I'm sorry, I'm Gabrielle Gifford.

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, pleased to meet you.

Ms. GIFFORDS: I just wanted to say hello and...

ROBBINS: Many here say they support Democrat Giffords' immigration plan, which is actually similar to President Bush and Jim Kolbe: border security with a guest worker program for illegal immigrants already here. Giffords says the district needs the workers.

Ms. GIFFORDS: Whether it's the businesses, agriculture or the construction industry, tourism as well - those are some of our largest industries here - all need to have ready and able worker supply.

ROBBINS: To Giffords supporter Lorilene Cook(ph), that seems reasonable, especially compared with Graf's more hard-line approach.

Ms. LORILENE COOK (Giffords Supporter): I absolutely wouldn't vote for Graf. In a million years I would not vote for him.

ROBBINS: How come?

Ms. COOK: Because he's too radical.

ROBBINS: Giffords is happy to see her opponent labeled as a one-issue candidate. At the same time she says she feels forced to talk about immigration at the cost of the Democratic Party's major issues.

Ms. GIFFORDS: There's a lot of national medias that are coming to interview us on immigration. And immigration's important. But there are other areas that are also critical to southern Arizona: the war on Iraq, winning the war on terrorism. Are we safer today than before we went into Iraq?

ROBBINS: Randy Graf, meanwhile, says he's anxious for upcoming debates where he can talk about other issues as well.

Mr. GRAF: I'm more than willing to talk about any issue on the campaign trail. Gabrielle Giffords obviously are on opposite sides of virtually any issue we want to address.

ROBBINS: Graf says he'll try to label Giffords as an extreme liberal and himself as a classic conservative. So far it's not working. The district has a Republican registration edge but long time incumbent Jim Kolbe has refused to endorse Graf. As of September, Giffords raised about three times more money than her opponent. And the Republican National Party cancelled about a million dollars in radio and TV ads for Graf. The Democratic National Party followed suit. If Republicans are conceding Arizona's 8th Congressional District, that could put the Democrats one seat closer to regaining the House in November. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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