TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona politics can be as thorny as the beautiful saguaro cacti that bristle on nearly every corner here.
For a smallish state — population less than 6.5 million, with 11 electoral votes — it certainly has caused more than its share of heartburn on the national stage.
First there is Jan Brewer, the Republican governor who signed a tough immigration law in 2010 that has put her on a collision course with the federal government. Brewer insists that she is just trying to protect her state from waves of illegal immigrants and drug lords from Mexico; critics of the law, called SB 1070, charge that it is discriminatory and unfairly targets Hispanics.
The federal government has challenged the law on the grounds that it pre-empts functions that do not belong to the state.
The case is now with the Supreme Court, which is supposed to render a decision any day now. Brewer has publicly declared victory in the case, but it is too soon to tell which way the court will rule.
Brewer, remember, is the state governor who famously wagged her finger in the president's face on the Phoenix tarmac in January, delighting photographers but scandalizing the rank and file.
For some Arizonans, Brewer is a symbol of firmness and independence. For others, she is just an embarrassment.
"I can't tell you what I think of Jan Brewer," said Frank Fernandez French, who retired from the Army after 23 years. "I can't say those words in front of a lady."
Brewer's immigration bill requires immigrants over 14 to have registration documents in their possession at all times, and empowers law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of everyone "during a lawful stop, detention or arrest."
That is the crux of the problem — critics charge that the "stops, detentions and arrests" are carried out on a highly discriminatory basis, against anyone who appears Hispanic.
This riles citizens like French.
"I was driving along in a line of cars, just trying to keep up," he said. "There was a guy on my bumper. The police did not stop the truck in front of me, or the guy riding my bumper. They pulled me over. When I showed them my Army service card, they let me go. But they still gave me a $200 ticket. Why? Because I'm Latino."
French is planning on voting for Barack Obama in November; in his mind, the president has done as well as he can, considering.
"He has had no cooperation from the Republicans," said French. "What can anyone expect?"
French and his buddy, George Hernandez, were hanging out at their local VFW post, and were quite happy to talk politics. They are both Hispanic, and both support the Democratic Party.
The Hispanic vote will be important in November. Polls show President Barack Obama with a commanding lead over Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, among Latinos. But frustration with some of Obama's policies, including foot-dragging on immigration reform and aggressive deportation measures, could help to depress turnout and take away much of the advantage the president now enjoys.
Arizona has traditionally voted Republican in presidential elections; it has gone for the Democratic candidate only once since 1952. That was in 1996, when it helped elect Bill Clinton to a second term.
But the state's growing Hispanic population — now at nearly 30 percent — is persuading Democrats that they have a chance there. It is now officially characterized as a swing state.
In Arizona, Hispanics are facing a tough battle with the state's most notorious law enforcement officer, Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County.
Arpaio has taken pains to burnish his tough-guy image with such measures as making prisoners in his jurisdiction wear pink underwear and live in tents under Arizona's blistering summer sun.
He has also instituted wide-ranging traffic "sweeps" aimed at ferreting out illegal aliens. The great majority of those stopped are, admittedly, Hispanic.
The federal government filed suit against Arpaio in May, charging him with racial profiling and other discriminatory measures.
Arpaio has fiercely denied the allegations, saying he will not allow Washington to dictate how he does his job.
The pugnacious sheriff claims that the federal suit is politically motivated; he has been at the forefront of the "birther" movement, which seeks to prove that Obama was not born in the United States, and hence cannot, by law, be president.
In March, Arpaio presented the findings of a six-month investigation conducted by his "Cold Case Posse," a group of volunteers who, he insisted, conducted their inquiries at no cost to the taxpayers.
"We are prepared to say today that probable cause exists to believe that forgery and fraud may have been committed" in Obama's birth certificate and selective service registration, Arpaio said, in a widely televised press conference.
"I cannot, in good faith, report to you that these documents are authentic," concluded the sheriff.
Arpaio's crusade has made him a hero in some circles; for others, he is more a source of shame than anything else.
"Arpaio has become entirely too infamous," said one resident, a well-heeled mother of three. "I don't think he is evil, just stupid."
Arpaio's supporters, however, insist that he is just a hard-working guy doing his job. The "liberal elitist media," they say, is just trying to discredit him.
"There has been entirely too much attention focused on Arpaio by the national media," said Mike Wyko, a retired small business owner living in Tuscson. "That is not objective. He is trying to do his job."
Arpaio is stil relatively popular: in November he was elected to a fifth four-year term as sheriff of Maricopa County.
Francisco Montoya, a retired US Army officer, also supports the sheriff. He is not at all bothered by Arpaio's actions, such as creating Tent City, a collection of canvas cells where prisoners are housed.
"So, what, should criminals have colored televisions and air conditioning?" said Montoya. "Military personnel also live in tents, you know."
Montoya, who is Hispanic, does not object to SB 1070, either. He buys Brewer's argument that it follows US law, and is only designed to protect Arizona against illegal immigrants.
This does not mean, however, that he does not feel the pinch of discriminatory practices.
"I've been discriminated against all my life," he said. "Why should I be bothered by this? It's nothing new."
But Arpaio's tactics have made him something of a joke in the state.
Two women working at a gas station along Interstate 17 laughed uproariously when asked whether the area was Maricopa County.
"No thank God," said one. "This is Yavapai County. We like our own sheriff better."
Maricopa County, she explained, was just down the road. The traffic sweeps routinely ordered by Arpaio were known and feared in the area, she added.
"Be careful," she warned. "Watch the speed limit, and just keep smiling as you drive through."