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Losing Arizona

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By Maria Teresa Kumar

After yet another brutal debate in Arizona last week, political analysts continue to ponder the fallout from a drawn-out GOP presidential primary. Will it hurt the eventual nominee by dividing the party and leaving lingering bitterness among each candidate's strongest supporters? Or will it better prepare the eventual nominee for prime-time, as many argue it did for Barack Obama in 2008?

But there's yet another, less discussed potential side-effect of this drawn-out primary season. It may well cost the GOP this year's key swing state and, with it, the White House.

Who can forget how the 2000 race came down to Florida, hanging chads and all. And in 2004, it was Ohio that cost Kerry the White House. In 2008, an Illinois Senator won upsets in Colorado and Virginia to take the White House.

This year, it may well be Arizona that puts Barack Obama back in the Oval Office.

Like Virginia, Arizona is a traditional red state, home of Barry Goldwater and John McCain. Its governor and legislature are Republican. So how could it become a swing state? Like much of America, Arizona has a growing Latino population. But that alone doesn't make it a swing state. After all, George W. Bush was elected president with substantial, although not majority, Latino support.

Instead, what's putting Arizona in play this year is that all four remaining GOP candidates have made the strategic decision to support extreme immigration policies in the hopes of winning over the right wing voters that will participate in Arizona's primary on Tuesday.

The candidates have had a choice: embrace new voters or appeal to extremists. Had the presidential primary been resolved earlier, perhaps by now we'd see Mitt Romney making an appeal for moderation. Calling, for example, for tougher border security while appealing for a humane immigration system that doesn't pull kids out of schools, separate families, or detain American citizens based on the color of their skin or their accent. Newt Gingrich floated a policy of this kind earlier in the year but quickly back-peddaled when his opponents used it as an opportunity to attack him from the right.

So, at a time when the entire state of Arizona is being bombarded with news coverage and TV ads, GOP candidates are doubling down on the divisive rhetoric, tripping over themselves to see who can more vigorously defend Arizona's racial profiling law and cozying up to Maricopa County's out-of-control Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a cartoonish villain in the Latino community who is unfortunately all too real.

Come November, Arizona may well become a shining example of what happens to Republican candidates who try to win by demonizing Latinos. There's already evidence of how this strategy might work out: just ask Russell Pierce.

He was the lead sponsor of Arizona's infamous SB1070 "show me your papers" racial profiling law. Today, he is an ex-State Senator ousted from office after Latinos and their supporters effectively organized a recall election that ended his political career. Meanwhile, legal efforts by the ACLU and the Department of Justice have effectively gutted his heinous racial profiling law. And Pierce's partner-in-crime, Sheriff Arpaio, is now under investigation from the Department of Justice and, because of pressure from the Latino community, the Department of Homeland Security has withdrawn from its "Secure Communities" partnership with the renegade Sheriff.

When moderate and independent voters in Arizona - Latino and non-Latino alike - vote in November, the Republicans' harshly negative tone from the primary will be fresh in their minds. In fact, Obama for America, seeing an opening, is setting up shop early in Arizona. Like Colorado in 2008, which went for Obama because of the growth in Latino voters there, it could become the margin of victory in this election.

Every day the Republican presidential candidates compete with one another to appease the GOP's extreme right wing in Arizona is another day that Latino voters get energized and moderate swing voters get pushed away from the Republican party. That is a very real consequence of a drawn-out GOP primary.

It's not lost on strategists like Karl Rove that Sharon Angle, who espoused similarly extreme views on immigration, lost ninety percent of the Latino vote in her Nevada Senate race even as Latinos helped elect a Republican governor.

And Republicans are still smarting from their loss of the California governship after Meg Whitman's short-lived political career ran into a brick wall of Latino backlash.

The difference this time is that losing Arizona will mean more than just losing a Senate race or a big governship. It'll mean the Presidency.