By Jeri Clausing, Jacques Billeaud and Steve Peoples
PHOENIX — Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio makes inmates wear pink underwear, live in tents during Arizona's sweltering summers and eat green bologna. The Justice Department is investigating him for potential civil rights violations in his sweeping immigration patrols, his office has been accused of trumping up charges against political rivals and he has tasked his cold case squad with investigating ongoing claims that President Barack Obama's birth certificate was faked.
While any sheriff with such a resume might seem like one most politicians would actively avoid, some of the top Republican presidential candidates are lining up to meet with the man described as the toughest, the craziest or most bigoted sheriff in America.
Arpaio, 79, loves the spotlight. And as the anti-immigration rhetoric in the Republican primary has heated up, he has been soaking up the glory, inviting media from around the world into his large office that is overflowing with pictures and trophies to himself and his tough policies.
"Did you see this," he asked on several occasions during a recent visit to his office, flashing a photo of himself standing with GOP hopeful Herman Cain.
"He's a good guy. Kind of like me. Tells it like it is."
"When is your story going to run?" was another oft-repeated question from the man who then insisted he doesn't have an ego. "I'm a private person. .... These people ... these television stations from all over the world ... they come to me. They want to talk to me."
Besides Cain, Arpaio met last month with Republican candidate Michele Bachmann. And he says he has recently had telephone conversations with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In the 2008 Republican presidential primary he endorsed Romney over Phoenix's own Sen. John McCain. But that doesn't mean he will automatically back him this time around.
"He forgot to invite me to his fundraiser," the sheriff noted with a twinge of resentment.
So are all four seeking his endorsement?
"Well, I'm pretty sure Perry and Romney and Michele, yeah," Arpaio said. "Herman, not right out. I didn't get much time to talk to him. He was late."
Perry spokesman Mark Miner confirmed the Arpaio-Perry meeting. Perry has taken heat from his GOP rivals for what they consider his soft stance on immigration, including allowing in-state university tuition rates and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrant high school students. An Arpaio spokesman, Jeff Sprong, said the Texas governor contacted Arpaio a second time last week.
Romney and Bachmann campaign spokesman did not respond to telephone calls and emails asking for interviews on why the candidates were courting Arpaio. Cain spokesman J.D. Gordon, however, characterized the visits and phone calls as fact-finding missions.
"All the candidates are trying to get up to speed on the border," he said. "... All the campaigns are reaching out to a wide variety of experts on a number of issues. Naturally, the border issue is one that will be central to the 2012 election, and therefore the candidates in general are trying to get as many opinions as they have."
Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist who now teaches at the University of Southern California, called Arpaio "a precise human representation of the importance of the debate over illegal immigration.
"We've already seen how volatile the issue has become in the Republican primary, so candidates who might be vulnerable in this debate would see Arpaio as protection against criticism. But that same debate plays out much different in the general election, so his support has both risks and benefits attached."
And at least one Republican Hispanic group, Somos Republicans, warns that it will also be working aggressively at the grass-roots level during the primary to promote only immigrant-friendly candidates.
"With regard to Perry consulting Arpaio, we did push back against him," said Dee Dee Blase, former president of Somos Republicans. "We sent him a strong message that that's a no-no. So hopefully Perry will pick up on that and not do that again."
But for congressional and statehouse candidates across the country, Arpaio's endorsement has become almost a brand, a stamp of approval for strong anti-immigration policies.
"I know of nobody who has the profile that Sheriff Joe has," Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, the architect of Arizona's tough immigration enforcement law, said in an interview last year.
Indeed, Arpaio advocates — and practices — some of the toughest anti-immigration policies in the country. A retired Drug Enforcement Agent who worked in the Middle East, Mexico and Texas before retiring in Arizona, he says he would send troops into Mexico to catch the immigrants before they hit the border. And those who do make it across should be charged with felonies, like they are when caught by raids on his turf.
While Arpaio has become synonymous with radical immigration laws, he built his reputation for being tough on crime when he first took office in 1993 and erected a compound of tents to house jail inmates. It's the epitome of hard time, with temperatures sometimes hitting 145 degrees. He also resurrected old-fashioned chain gangs.
Arpaio seemingly only softens when he speaks of animals. He was recently the featured singer at a humane association fundraiser, and he brags that some of the county's old — and more comfortable jail cells — are now used by the county animal shelter.
While Arpaio has long been courted by anti-immigration politicians around the country, he says interest in him rose again after Obama announced a plan to halt the deportation of some 300,000 illegal immigrants.
That put the immigration issue back at the forefront of the presidential campaigns, he said.
"Nobody is saying anything," Arpaio said. "But I'm glad it's back on the table. I'm glad they are talking about it. People will be interested in it instead of just the economy. So I'm going to keep stimulating that and they can keep coming down here and visiting me, which confuses me. Why would they want to visit me?"
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Copyright 2011 Associated Press