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The Border Campaign

Republican hopeful Randy Graf is down but not out in Arizona's Eighth District.

3:45 PM, Nov 2, 2006 • By WHITNEY BLAKE
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THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE in Congress is one of a handful of polarizing issues at the forefront of this election season. In Arizona's District 8, which sits adjacent to the Mexican border, immigration is the issue. When asked to name the single most important issue when choosing a candidate, 45.8 percent of likely voters listed border control/immigration, compared with 10.7 percent who considered the Iraq war their top priority. In this year's congressional race, voters have a clear choice for a remedy to the border situation: close the borders or leave them open but monitored.

Republican Randy Graf, a Minuteman advocate and former state representative, and Democratic nominee Gabrielle Giffords, a former state senator, are vying for retiring Republican Jim Kolbe's seat in a battle that has seen many twists and turns. Giffords has led by a margin of 8 to 12 points in the non-partisan polls since the primary, and while the race was all but abandoned by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) early on, some prominent Republicans, including those who disagree vehemently with Graf's hard line on immigration, are coming to his aid. The Giffords campaign, however, remains confident that she has this race in the bag.

Last November Kolbe announced his retirement after 11 terms in office. The primary that ensued was a fierce five-way contest for Republicans; Graf's campaign manager R.T. Gregg jokingly described it as a "Republican knife fight in the phone booth." It was also held relatively late--September 12--leaving just eight weeks to mend fences and reunite the party. And boy were there fences to mend. Gregg said that Graf was never the "establishment candidate," to put it politely.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, in an unusual move, poured money into the Republican primary--more than $200,000 to back Graf's opponent Steve Huffman. What's more telling is that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee funneled $190,000 toward efforts to attack Huffman in ad spots in the primary, seeing him as the bigger threat in the general election.

Graf, who challenged Kolbe in the 2004 primary, and was defeated by an arguably unimpressive margin for a longtime incumbent (57 percent to 43 percent), was able to scrape away votes from the others, beating Huffman 42.2 percent to 37.6 percent. In the end his challengers threw their support behind him, and the NRCC donated $10,000 to Graf. But then, less than two weeks after the primary, the NRCC pulled $1 million of ads they had planned to run, believing that Giffords, who was up by 19 points in a poll released by her campaign days after the primary, had an insurmountable lead. The DCCC diverted its funds from the general election after the NRCC backed out.

Graf has garnered endorsements from Sen. John McCain, Sen. John Kyl, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, and the entire Arizona Congressional delegation, save for Kolbe, who released a statement noting that he "would not be true" to his own principles if he did endorse him because they have "such profound and fundamental differences" on their views. While this was once thought a hindrance to success for Graf, it may have been a blessing in disguise; in light of the Mark Foley scandal, Kolbe has come under scrutiny for allegedly taking a camping trip with male congressional pages in 1996, the same year he publicly disclosed his homosexual orientation. Representative Duncan Hunter and Speaker Dennis Hastert have both appeared on the campaign trail beside him. Hastert, who hosted a Washington, D.C., fundraiser for Graf in late September, spoke on Monday in Tuscon at a private luncheon for Graf.

As for Giffords, she's been endorsed by the likes of General Wesley Clark, former Sen. Tom Daschle, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, and Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva. Her primary wasn't nearly as discordant; in a six-way race, she captured an outright majority with 54.3 percent--one opponent received a respectable 31.2 percent while the rest were stuck in the single digits. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is slated to appear at a rally on Thursday with Giffords, and President Bill Clinton will campaign on Thursday as well at a rally for Senate candidate Jim Pederson, which Giffords and other Democrats on the ballot will attend.

In a district that leans only slightly Republican (President Bush won 53-46 percent in 2004 and 50-46 percent in 2000, but Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano also received a majority in 2002), Kolbe won by a landslide in 2004 and 2002 (60-36 and 63-34, respectively). Kolbe's success is due in part to his moderate stances: He co-sponsored a bill along with McCain and Rep. Jeff Flake of the 6th District calling for a guest worker program granting six-year visas to new aliens and three-year visas to current illegal immigrants.