Michele Bachmann called him “one of my heroes” when she stopped by his office yesterday. Mitt Romney dropped him a line earlier this week. Rick Perry calls him up for regular chats. Even Herman Cain has reached out.
But Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is playing it close to the vest. “America’s Toughest Sheriff” knows he’s the hottest endorsement of the Republican race, and he plans on taking his time.
With illegal immigration simmering as a hot-button issue of the 2012 presidential race, GOP candidates are feverishly courting Arpaio, one of the country’s most famous immigration hardliners. Arpaio has been the most visible proponent — and enforcer — of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, which gives law enforcement broad powers to detain suspected illegal immigrants.
Sensing that immigration might be the Achilles’ Heel of Perry’s conservative record, Romney and Bachmann rushed to Arizona this week to make overtures to Arpaio. Both candidates tacked sharply to the right on border issues during their respective swings through the Grand Canyon state.
Perry was already one step ahead of his rivals. The Texas Governor has been making almost weekly phone calls to Arpaio since he entered the race last month, according to Arpaio’s aides.
So far, Arpaio has had nice things to say about all of the candidates, even Perry. He told the Texas Tribune last week that he feels a kinship to his fellow Westerner. “I kind of like the guy,” he added.
But the Sheriff hasn’t made any endorsement decisions for 2012. For now, he seems to enjoy making the candidates work for it.
“I don’t go around endorsing people unless they personally ask,” Arpaio told the Arizona Republic. “It’s the only right way of doing it as far as I’m concerned. I’m not being egotistical. Doesn’t it make sense? They’re calling me.”
Arpaio’s backing would be a major win for any of the Republican candidates. The Phoenix-area sheriff is wildly popular among conservatives nationwide, having built a cult of personality around his theatrical illegal immigration raids and unapologetically harsh treatment of county prisoners.
Arpaio is perhaps most famous for making inmates wear pink underwear, and for building “Tent City,” an extension of the Maricopa County jail that houses prisoners in unairconditioned Korean War-era military tents, despite Phoenix’s extreme heat. A federal court ruled last year that the jail has violated inmates’ constitutional rights by not providing adequate food or medical care.
Arpaio himself has also been the subject of federal investigations for civil rights violations and abuse of power. But GOP presidential hopefuls are apparently undeterred by Arpaio’s controversial record.
“He’s a great guy,” Bachmann told reporters yesterday. “Anyone would want his endorsement.”
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