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Mum on Immigration

In the extraordinary battle to keep his legislative seat, Arizona’s most hawkish proponent of strict enforcement of illegal immigration laws is, incredibly, mostly muted on the subject.

Since a recall election against him was certified last month, Senate President Russell Pearce has passed on the opportunity to weigh in on major developments in the immigration front, including when Gov. Jan Brewer asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a ruling that blocked key parts of SB1070 — Pearce’s legacy immigration bill.

And for a man who is often quick to label his enemies as part of the “open border” and “cheap labor” crowd — a proven highly effective tactic for him — Pearce has yet to tar his most serious challenger, Mesa Republican Jerry Lewis.

Instead, the No. 1 man in the Senate has let surrogates attack Lewis, keeping his powder dry for now.

This palpable change in rhetorical messaging wasn’t lost on longtime Capitol observers.

What makes this muteness even more interesting is the fact that some believe Pearce’s passionate fight against illegal immigration is the reason for the recall effort, while others view the election as a referendum on strict-enforcement laws and proposals that are aimed at deterring or driving away undocumented aliens.

RELATED: Lewis also silent on immigration views

• • •

But political consultants who are closely watching the race said Pearce is employing a smart campaign strategy.

His position on illegal immigration is clearly defined and well known, they noted. That is, he doesn’t need to repeat himself and he can already count on the votes from folks who support his approach to confronting illegal immigration.

But what he needs to do, they said, is to reach out to voters who also have other priorities, such as jobs and the economy, and he wouldn’t be efficiently using his time if he dwells on illegal immigration.

The strategy, they added, would also help counter the oft-repeated charge that he spends all his energy on immigration-related issues, and thereby let people know that he is well-rounded and not one-dimensional as often characterized.

“If you know that your opponent is going to try to make the case that you’re a one-issue senator, then what you smartly should be doing is talking to the voters about all the other issues that you’ve been engaged in,” said Kurt Davis, a Republican political consultant. “So I think what you’re seeing in this case is somebody who is effectively sticking to that strategy and that message.

“Again, he gains nothing by talking about the immigration issue from the standpoint that everybody knows where Senator Pearce stands on immigration,” Davis added.

Republican political consultant Chris Baker agreed.

“He gets all the attention in the world for immigration but let’s face it, he’s been a fiscal conservative for a long time,” Baker said. “So I think he’s diversifying, shall we say, here for the next few months. And that’s a smart move politically.”

Actually, Pearce’s change of emphasis is not a novel campaign strategy.

It’s often displayed during U.S. presidential campaigns, when candidates pander to their base during the primary and then try to move to the center during the general election.

Here’s why: A recall election is essentially a general election, where independents and Democrats can cast ballots alongside Republicans. And while the serious contenders in this race are Republicans, they must still appeal to a broader spectrum of voters.

• • •

But some offered another explanation: Pearce might not want to be seen as actively flouting the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which recently came out with a statement that calls for a more humane approach toward illegal immigration and rejects state legislation that only advances strict-enforcement provisions.

If it were another legislative district, the position by Pearce’s church probably wouldn’t hold as much sway.

But in Mesa, where the first Mormon temple in Arizona was erected — which sits in the center of Pearce’s District 18 — some say it could alter the political landscape. Lewis, his most serious challenger, is a former stake president of the LDS church.

Those who offered this view spoke on background so they could freely share their assessment. They include political strategists as well as Republicans who are plugged into politics and the church.

“The church’s statement really put Russell in a box,” said one LDS Republican who is familiar with East Valley politics.

“If he says, ‘Yeah, I was right and SB1070 was the right thing to do and I’ve been right the whole time,’ then he’s exposing himself as being at odds with the church’s teachings,” this Republican said. “(But) if he retreats and says, ‘You know what? I’ve been corrected or I’m seeing this in a different light and I need to do things differently,’ then he’s potentially abandoning his identity.”

It’s a “lose-lose” situation, this source said, adding what’s truly remarkable about the recall is it demonstrates that illegal immigration, suddenly, is a liability for the Senate president.

But Pearce’s supporters rejected that notion.

“Within any religion there is a healthy debate on a wide variety of issues, and there isn’t going to be a 100 percent agreement on issues within a given religious group,” said Ed Phillips, a former state senator who now acts as spokesman for Citizens Who Oppose the Pearce Recall. “There could be some honest disagreements, just like in politics.”

Others point out that SB1070 — Pearce’s famous anti-illegal immigration law — and employer sanctions — his 2007 legislation aimed at cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants — are decidedly popular among voters. Some credit SB1070, for example, with helping the governor retain her seat in the last election.

• • •

To be clear, Pearce hasn’t completely eschewed his favorite topic.

The issue of illegal immigration is prominently discussed on his website, and in many ways, the topic is unavoidable.

But for someone who often jumps on opportunities to talk about the need to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and for strict enforcement of laws, he hasn’t exactly been banging the drum on this topic.

Pearce did not return several phone calls from the Arizona Capitol Times seeking comment for this article.

He has agreed to a few interviews, however. When he did, it seemed that the venues were carefully chosen.

He recently granted one, for example, to conservative radio host Roger Hedgecock, who gushed and called him an “inspiring American.”

But his views were glaringly missing when Brewer this month appealed a federal court’s decision that upheld a lower court’s ruling to block major parts of SB1070.

Also last June, Pearce was invited to the oral arguments over a countersuit that Arizona filed against the federal government. He arrived with Brewer and sat with her in the front row of the courtroom.

But when Brewer spoke with reporters in front of the courthouse afterward, Pearce was nowhere to be seen.

In contrast, he showed up in February when Brewer and Attorney General Tom Horne called the media to the federal courthouse to announce the countersuit. Pearce wasn’t invited or told in advance what the press conference was about, but he showed up anyway and spoke with media afterward.

That’s not at all.

Just a few days ago, Pearce passed on the opportunity to call out the Obama Administration after it announced a policy shift in handling deportation cases. The move could allow tens of thousands of illegal aliens who haven’t committed crimes, and aren’t considered to pose a public safety threat, to remain in this country.

Instead, it was Brewer who lashed out at the White House, describing the policy shift as tantamount to “backdoor amnesty for hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of illegal aliens.”

In June, however, Pearce let the Obama administration have it after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton issued a memo giving agents wider discretion to decide who to detain or release on a bond, or whether to halt the removal of an illegal immigrant.

In a letter to supporters, Pearce claimed Obama was enacting “the nightmarish DREAM Act” and granting “amnesty to virtually all illegal aliens” via executive order.

But perhaps the biggest indication for Pearce’s message makeover can be glimpsed in the statement he submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office that would appear on the November ballot.

Under the law, an incumbent who faces a recall is allowed up to 200 words to defend himself.

He emphasized his fiscal conservatism, and his efforts to aid the state’s wobbly economy.

He devoted exactly two words to illegal immigration — “secure borders.” He didn’t mention SB1070 or the employer sanctions law.

— Arizona Capitol Times writer Jeremy Duda contributed to this article.

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