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Republican presidential candidates court controversial Arizona sheriff

By Ed Lavandera, CNN Correspondent
updated 6:28 PM EST, Thu November 10, 2011
GOP presidential hopefuls are going out of their way to court Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona.
GOP presidential hopefuls are going out of their way to court Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "They come for my endorsement," says Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County
  • Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann have visited; Mitt Romney, Rick Perry have called
  • They want Arpaio's approval despite recent controversy, but he's yet to reveal his choice
  • Sheriff, known for tough stand on illegal immigration, is popular in conservative circles

Phoenix (CNN) -- Republican presidential candidates crisscross the country searching for votes. But some are going out of their way to make a stop for the vote of one person: Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona.

"They don't come see me because I'm tall, dark and handsome. They come for my endorsement," Arpaio told CNN.

Candidates have made quick stops in Phoenix to meet with the crusader against illegal immigration. Arpaio uses his Twitter account to announce the meetings. He says he has a "tough choice ahead."

He says he could announce his Republican primary endorsement in the weeks or days leading up a GOP debate scheduled in Arizona for early December.

In October, Herman Cain met with the sheriff in his Phoenix office. Arpaio called it a "great meeting" and said he and Cain were unorthodox politicians. This was just days after Cain suggested electrifying the southern border fence to shock illegal immigrants trying to cross into the United States. Arpaio didn't think it was a big deal.

"I have illegal immigrants in tents, hot tents. I have them on chain gangs," he proclaimed proudly.

In September, Michele Bachmann came to Arpaio's office and declared, "Sheriff Joe is the nation's sheriff. He is one of my heroes."

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry have courted the sheriff with several phone calls over recent weeks. In fact, the two candidates really seemed to turn on the charm.

Arpaio tweeted, "Interesting day ... received call from Gov. Perry. 3 hours later received a call from Mitt Romney's campaign official."

The courting of Arpaio is even more interesting when you consider that the controversial Arizona sheriff is having tumultuous times in public office. There are accusations of misspending $100 million in taxpayer money, a federal investigation into abuse of power and allegations of racial profiling. Arpaio denies it all, saying that controversy isn't new to him and that voters overwhelmingly support him.

"I'm not concerned with it. You don't see me losing my hair. You see me every day doing the job," he told CNN in a wide-ranging interview in his Phoenix office. "All those critics out there, I'll tell you right now: You're not going to drive me out of office."

Arpaio is running for a sixth term as Maricopa County sheriff, but there is a growing chorus of critics calling for his resignation. He says that after almost 20 years in office, he hasn't lost his "touch."

Politicians usually run away from other politicians mired in scandal. But this year, Republican presidential candidates just keep calling, hoping to get the endorsement of a sheriff who's politically popular in conservative circles around the country.

Arpaio won't say how influential his endorsement could be in this tight, unsettled Republican primary.

In 2008, he was Romney's honorary campaign chairman for the state of Arizona. Back then, Arpaio said of Romney: "This is a person that I really feel will be good for our country. It's from the heart."

But now, Arpaio says that no one should read anything into that endorsement and that he hasn't decided whom he will endorse. But he may have offered a clue in this statement to CNN, just days before the infamous "Oops" blunder by Rick Perry in a CNBC debate:

"No idea. Everyone is writing Perry off. I'm not writing Perry off."

An Arpaio endorsement could benefit a candidate like Perry, who was riding high in the polls before voters learned he had supported a Texas law that would provide in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. The sheriff's tough stand on illegal immigration could win back some voters who fear Perry is soft on the issue.

In the weeks ahead, he can expect a flurry of phone calls from the candidates. He's the sheriff familiar with controversy who could play the role of kingmaker in the Republican primary.

"They're all good people. I don't know yet," Arpaio said.

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