Phoenix (AP) - As the year began, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer faced a competitive field of fellow Republicans who wanted her job, with some GOP critics sensing she was particularly vulnerable as she sought voter approval of a sales tax increase she'd proposed to shore up the state budget.
All of that began to change in April, when she signed a tough new state law cracking down on illegal immigrants, which soon put Arizona at the heart of a rabid national debate on immigration. Now, with Arizona's Aug. 24 GOP primary just two weeks away, not only she is riding high, but she can confidently boast of an enviable reputation among conservatives across the country.
"She essentially flipped the whole election," said Matthew Jette, the only candidate still actively campaigning against Brewer. "She was pretty much dead last, except if you count me."
All of the prominent challengers have either withdrawn or stopped actively campaigning. And while early polling had put Brewer 20 points below the presumptive Democratic nominee, Attorney General Terry Goddard, recent polling had her leading him by that much.
And Republican candidates in other states have been welcoming her endorsements.
Brewer "has become an inspiration to conservatives and represents the new kind of leadership we need across the country," said Georgia gubernatorial candidate Karen Handel.
Brewer was midway through her second term as Arizona's secretary of state when she took over the governor's office from Democrat Janet Napolitano, who resigned in January 2009 to run the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The position caps nearly three decades as an elected official in Arizona, in which she represented western Phoenix suburbs in the state Legislature for 14 years.
Signing the immigration law on April 23 was a huge moment for Brewer politically, said Richard Herrera, an Arizona State University associate professor of political science.
It distracted attention from the tax increase while "promoting herself as tough on immigration and putting her in line with the point of view of primary voters in the Republican Party, trumping the other contenders for conservativeness," Herrera said. "She and her campaign staff played it absolutely perfectly."
Brewer's political path in her home state eased considerably when millionaire businessman Buz Mills in mid-July suspended his campaign -- a campaign on which he'd already lavished at least $3 million of his own money, mainly for slick television commercials.
The problem, Mills said, was that the immigration law "has regrettably taken the focus off of job creation and fixing the state budget" -- the concerns that drew Mills into the race last spring.
Mills' move came just days after State Treasurer Dean Martin suspended his campaign. Martin later formally withdrew from the race but too late to keep his name off the ballot. Former state Republican Party Chairman John Munger stepped out of the race in June. Former Paradise Valley Mayor Vernon Parker left earlier.
The departures left only Jette, a former pharmaceuticals salesman and part-time collage instructor.
A self-described moderate, Jette says the immigration law is "hostile and divisive." He grudgingly supported the sales tax increase approved by voters in a May 18 special election but said Brewer hasn't adequately protected health care, education and other services from budget cuts.
Aside from the tax increase, Brewer has posted a reliably conservative record.
As governor, Brewer froze state regulatory rules and signed bills to put new restrictions on abortion and allow Arizonans to carry concealed weapons without a state permit.
In the governor's race, she's already set her targets on Goddard even before formally winning her party's nomination.
Voters, Brewer said, have clear choices "between the advocates of bigger government, uncontrolled spending and unaccountable education policies and those of us committed to smaller government, job creation, fiscal discipline, and quality education."
Goddard lashed back at Brewer when a federal judge on July 29 blocked implementation of big parts of the immigration law, ruling that it likely would fall to the federal government's constitutional challenge.
"Jan Brewer played politics with immigration, and she lost," Goddard said. "Rather than providing the leadership Arizona needs to solve the immigration problem, Jan Brewer signed a bill she could not defend in court which has led to boycotts, jeopardized our tourism industry and polarized our state."
On immigration and border security, Goddard cites his office's work against smuggling cartels and calls for increased federal action against those who transport drugs and people north across the U.S.-Mexico border and money and drugs south.
"Goddard still has a problem so long as the law is the defining campaign issue," Herrera said.
Goddard needs to switch the campaign's focus to the state's still struggling economy and its continued budget troubles, but Brewer can hope that illegal immigration serves as a surrogate issue for many voters' general dissatisfaction. Herrera said.
"That can resonate with voters who are looking for some sort of answer," he said.
All of her prominent challengers have either withdrawn or stopped actively campaigning.