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Immigration a focus of GOP debate in Senate race

Wil Cardon (left) and Rep. Jeff Flake. (File photos)

Illegal immigration and border security were a combined focus of a Thursday evening televised debate between the two leading Republican candidates for an open U.S. Senate seat from Arizona.

Businessman Wil Cardon said U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake opportunistically discarded his long advocacy for comprehensive reform to now say border security must come first, while Flake said his changed position was a bow to reality.

Cardon also complained he was unfairly attacked by Flake advertising about hiring at a Subway business partly owned by Cardon. Cardon said he only owned a small part of the business, which was fined for documentation violations, not illegal hiring.

Cardon said his opponent’s ads on the Subway issue distorted Cardon’s business record while laying the blame for illegal immigration on businesses, not the federal government’s failure to secure the border.

“It’s a deliberate lie and an attempt to mislead,” he said.

Flake responded that Cardon should take it up with federal immigration authorities who found that many of the Subway employees’ work-authorization papers were faulty.

“Wil’s problem is not with me,” Flake said. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “is the one that said …half of your employees did not have the proper documentation.”

Flake, who adopted a narrower position on immigration when he announced his Senate candidacy last year, said only after the border is secure can other immigration concerns like creation of a temporary worker program and the status of current illegal immigrants be tackled.

“It’s a recognition that until we get border security that we can’t move on to the other items,” he said.

Cardon said Flake’s position was too late and too convenient after a decade of advocating comprehensive reform.

“We can’t keep changing our minds … just because all of a sudden we’re running for another office,” Cardon said.

Former Youngtown Mayor Bryan Hackbarth and Christian radio talk-show host Clair Van Steenwyk also participated in the debate produced by KAET-TV in Phoenix and aired by KUAT-TV in Tucson.

Flake, the front-runner in the race to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, has been trying to fend off a charge by Cardon, who has spent millions of dollars of his own money on campaign advertising.

Flake, a six-term congressman, said the next senator should be equipped and willing to take on state-focused issues such as forest health and mineral rights as well as national concerns like soaring federal debt and the budget deficit.

“This is a high-stakes election,” he said.

Cardon pitched his business background as he called for the election of an outsider who would turn Washington around.

“I’m not an establishment candidate,” Cardon said, dismissing the endorsement of Flake by Kyl and fellow Republican Sen. John McCain.

The debate was held 12 days before the Aug. 28 primary. The winner of the Republican contest will face Democrat Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general, in the Nov. 6 general election.

Democrats hoping to keep control of the Senate have said they have a shot at capturing the Arizona seat now held by Kyl, a three-term senator.

Republicans generally scoff at that, but Kyl and McCain have said they feared their party’s contested primary could weaken the nominee in the general election race.

Both Flake and Cardon said they’d support the Republican nominee.

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