YUMA, Arizona — Move over, Sarah Palin, there's another rising star in the Republican Party.
Little-known even at home two years ago and locked in a tough three-way race for her party's nomination just months ago, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, 65, now has driven Republican rivals from the race, is coasting to the nomination in a primary next Tuesday and is poised to win election to a full term.
She's become a regular on Fox News, has hundreds of thousands of fans on Facebook and entertains invitations from Republicans around the country to headline their dinners or endorse their candidacies.
The reason: She's become the face of opposition to President Barack Obama by championing a tough, controversial state law on illegal immigration. His administration sued the state, and won an injunction temporarily stopping enforcement of key parts of the measure while it's debated in court. She vows to fight all the way to the Supreme Court.
Her fans call her a courageous leader who's doing what other Republicans won't: standing up to Obama. Skeptics say she's an opportunist, noting that she didn't write the law, and signed it only after taking a week to think about it. Critics such as Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles say the law itself is "retrogressive, mean-spirited and useless."
Either way, her signature on the law sent her poll numbers soaring.
"We're representing the people. We stand up and we're not going to let the federal government push us around," she said in an interview, pausing several times on a hot afternoon to pat makeup on her face with a pad.
She said she had no ambitions beyond her state, saying she endorses only candidates she knows personally and that for now she's focused on her own campaign.
"I want to run this race for governor and win, and serve the people of Arizona and protect them from the federal administration and the drug cartels in Mexico," she said.
"I love her," said Don Neely, a retired truck driver from Yuma. "I didn't know much about her before. But she stood up to Obama."
Megan Kircher, a stay-at-home mom from Yuma, said: "I'm tired of having illegals in my front yard. If I go out at night, I'm afraid. She is standing up against immense pressure from the feds. As our leader, she's doing whatever it takes to protect us. She's great."
Brewer was in her second term as Arizona's secretary of state when she moved up by law to fill the unexpired term of Democratic former Gov. Janet Napolitano, who was named as Obama's secretary of homeland security. Brewer's most prominent achievement at the time had been overhauling the state's voting systems. She didn't mention illegal immigration in her 2009 inauguration speech. Rather, she focused on the budget crisis the state faced.
Brewer today boasts to conservatives of the tough choices she made to cut spending. "We cut $2.2 billion out of a $10 billion budget," she told supporters in Yuma. She didn't mention that she also backed a temporary tax increase.
"It wasn't popular to raise taxes," said Yuma Mayor Alan Krieger, a Republican who does mention the tax issue as a top reason he thinks she's tough. "She has more backbone, more spine, than a lot of governors. She inherited a terrible budget and she had to make tough choices."
By last spring, Brewer's prospects for winning a full term were cloudy at best. She was locked in a three-way fight for the Republican nomination, and a poll found her slightly trailing the likely Democratic nominee, Attorney General Terry Goddard.
Then she signed the anti-immigration law in April. She went on TV repeatedly. "Now we have all the network people calling my office," she said. Brewer also went to the White House to meet with Obama, who criticized the law as potentially discriminatory and challenged it in court.
"She was having trouble before that," said Barbara Espinosa, a conservative blogger from Scottsdale. "She took a week to sign it. She didn't oppose it, but she drug her feet. She was not instrumental in passing it."
"She didn't even want to sign it," said Vera Anderson, a Realtor and tea party activist from Anthem, south of Phoenix. "It was just an opportunity. She was neck and neck for the nomination. Then she signed it and her numbers went through the roof. She's still riding that wave."
On the crest of that wave, Brewer sometimes has misstated things in her campaign.
While she was stressing the threat from criminals crossing the border, she said, "Law enforcement agencies have found bodies in the desert either buried or just lying out there that have been beheaded." Arizona officials said they had no reports of criminal beheadings, and that the one human skull they'd found in the desert probably had been removed from a dead body by animals.
Accused of being a Nazi for her support of the immigration law, she said that hurt especially because her father "died fighting the Nazi regime in Germany." In truth, her father worked in an Army depot in Nevada, didn't serve in the military or fight in World War II and died of cancer in 1955, perhaps caused by exposure to chemicals at the depot.
She's focused like a laser beam, however, on her message of fighting Obama to stop illegal immigrants from hurting Arizona and its people.
While it may enrage critics as a polarizing move, it's broadly popular. Polls find that she has wide leads in her campaign at home. Polls also find majority support nationwide for the Arizona law, and majority or plurality opposition to the federal challenge.
"Some people will tell you Arizona has divided America," Brewer said. "We have united America."
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