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A Southern Arizona rancher, stands at the border wall with Mexico on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2010 in Hereford, Ariz. He was attending the United Border Coalition Tea Party Rally in support of Arizona's immigration law, SB1070 with conservative tea party activists along a remote stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border about 113 kilometers west of Nogales. (Matt York/AP/Matt York/AP)
A Southern Arizona rancher, stands at the border wall with Mexico on Sunday, Aug. 15, 2010 in Hereford, Ariz. He was attending the United Border Coalition Tea Party Rally in support of Arizona's immigration law, SB1070 with conservative tea party activists along a remote stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border about 113 kilometers west of Nogales. (Matt York/AP/Matt York/AP)

Arizona: The meeting point of all that is ailing the U.S. Add to ...

What's the matter with Arizona?

A place that never much made the headlines, best known as a refuge for hydrophobic snowbirds, the Grand Canyon state has suddenly become the epicentre of American hot-button politics. The tone and content of ugly national debates are increasingly determined within its borders.

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If you think about the great transformative waves in postwar American politics, Arizona is an afterthought. The civil rights movement of the 1960s inflamed the South and gritty inner cities. The culture wars of the 1990s surrounding abortion and gay rights empowered the "fly over" states of middle-America, prompting a book by Thomas Frank called What's the Matter with Kansas?

But for months now, well before the eyes of the world fell on Tucson, in the wake of Saturday's shooting of a member of Congress and 19 others at a political event, Arizona has been monopolizing national attention. And the spotlight has not fallen on a pretty sight.

The incendiary debates that have consumed the state of late are not just attracting notice elsewhere. They are increasingly setting the agenda in Washington. Does that make Arizona the new trendsetter in American politics?

Tea Party politics

For the longest time, it seemed the sun shone more than just literally on Arizona. The quintessential sunbelt state was a magnet for entrepreneurs seeking a lucrative but laidback lifestyle and refugees from the rustbelt looking to relive the American Dream. Its population grew by a quarter in the first decade of the 21st century, compared with less than 10 per cent nationally. And its politics seemed civil, with its moderate Democratic governor and "maverick" Republican senator each willing to cross party lines to capture the reasonable centre of public opinion.

It all changed after Barack Obama's election to the presidency. Then-governor Janet Napolitano left to join Mr. Obama's cabinet and John McCain, the one-time maverick who lost his bid for the White House (also to Mr. Obama), decided the centre was no longer his natural political home.

Mr. McCain's transformation into a raging grandpa of the right may have more to do with his political survival instincts than his own conservative rebirth. But that, after more than a quarter century in Congress, he felt it necessary to inhabit a new political guise to win his 2010 Republican primary suggests Arizona has changed a lot from the state that first elected him in 1982.

"We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry," Clarence Dupnik, 74, the Pima County sheriff, blared following Saturday's tragedy.

Thomas Volgy, a University of Arizona political science professor, and the former Democratic mayor of Tucson, agrees that the tone of political debate in his adopted state has become more venomous in the past couple of years. But rather than setting the tone for the country, Arizona, he says, is merely catching up.

"In the 30-some years I've been involved in politics, we have gotten a little meaner and little uglier," he offers amid the abundant political memorabilia in his campus office. "In that sense, we are now not that different from the rest of the country. …My hope was always that we would never get there."

Mean and ugly are not exclusive preserves of the right, of course. But the tone of Tea Party politics has been particularly aggressive in sunbelt states such as Arizona and Nevada. They also happen to be the ones in which the collapse in the U.S. housing market has been the deepest, wreaking the most damage on families and communities. Shattered dreams, middle-class angst and feelings of abandonment are potent ingredients for revolutionary politics.

It may just be an eerie coincidence that Arizona played host to the drama apparently authored by Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old now facing federal charges of murder and attempted assassination. Though Mr. Loughner allegedly targeted Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, trying to establish any causal link between the shooting and the rise of Tea Party politics in Arizona may not be worth the effort. Judging by his online ramblings, coherency has not been Mr. Loughner's strong suit.

Immigration

Nowhere has Mr. McCain's swing to the hard right been as brutally apparent as on the issue of immigration. For years a supporter of comprehensive reform that would provide a path to citizenship for the country's 11-million illegal immigrants, Mr. McCain abandoned that tack during his primary battle to advocate tougher border security. He is a staunch backer of the controversial law Arizona's Republican-dominated legislature passed last year. It superseded the federal government to require state police to apprehend people they suspect of being in the country illegally.

A federal court struck down the law shortly before it was to take effect, but Republican Governor Jan Brewer has appealed the case.

The legislator who championed the law, Republican state Senator Russell Pearce, is now at the forefront of a movement in Arizona and other states to establish a form of state citizenship.

The aim is to deny automatic citizenship to children born in Arizona to illegal immigrants. That would presumably violate the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees American citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil.

"We want to have our day in court," John Kavanagh, a member of the Arizona House of Representatives, explained last week. "All we're asking for is for these [state]bills to prompt the Supreme Court to re-evaluate what we believe is an erroneous interpretation of the 14th Amendment."

The nasty turn in the immigration debate in Arizona, where Latinos account for 30 per cent of the population and made up more than half of Arizona's population growth in the past decade, is surprising in a state with deep and historical ties to Hispanic culture. So why now?

"What's changed over the past two years is the enormous amount of frustration over the economy," Prof. Volgy offers. "In really bad economic times, sometimes people begin to look for scapegoats. I think the illegal immigration debate became the scapegoat issue in Arizona."

Health Care

Arizona sparked national outrage last month when it announced that the state's Medicaid program, which provides health care to those with incomes below the poverty line, would no longer cover certain organ transplants.

It was just the latest move by Ms. Brewer's administration to slash Medicaid, which is jointly funded by the federal government, setting up a clash with Washington. Arizona's attempt last year to tighten eligibility requirements for its Medicaid program led the Obama administration to threaten to withdraw all federal funding.

Ms. Brewer has seized on the issue to assert states' rights, putting Arizona on the front line of a debate that will only intensify as Mr. Obama's health-care reform law is implemented in coming years.

The health-care and immigration debates are, in a way, intimately tied. Outside the hospital where Ms. Giffords remains in critical condition, Jack Dyson ponders the makeshift shrine set up to honour the victims of Saturday's shooting. But even the 77-year-old retiree, a Democrat, expresses qualified support for the Arizona immigration law.

"I don't think we can continue to sustain the amount of immigration coming in - not just from Mexico, but from all of South and Central America," he insists. "It is certainly a drain on the resources we have. When one of them gets hurt, they have to be treated. You can't deny them treatment."

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