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J.D. Hayworth's latest TV ad savages John McCain for worsening the "illegal alien invasion" that he vows to end if Arizona Republicans choose him as the party's candidate over their 73-year-old sitting senator.

Until Wednesday, the prospect of that happening seemed highly unlikely.

A few months ago, only five percentage points separated the two leading candidates in the Aug. 24 GOP primary. By last week, however, the gap had widened to 20 points in Mr. McCain's favour. Republican voters had been souring on Mr. Hayworth's self-aggrandizing style and seemed willing to give Mr. McCain another chance after he vowed to "complete the danged fence" running along the border with Mexico.

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But Wednesday's decision by a Federal Court judge in Arizona to slap a preliminary injunction on most of the state's contentious new law aimed at detaining and deporting illegal immigrants, just hours before it was to take effect, provided Mr. Hayworth with a homestretch opportunity to remind irate Republicans of Mr. McCain's record. He didn't waste it, launching a scathing new attack ad on Friday.

"McCain wrote the amnesty bill, opposed the border fence, voted against border-security funding," the TV spot says. The 2008 GOP presidential nominee even "allowed illegal aliens to get Social Security and Medicare."

The immigration issue has overshadowed every other in Arizona politics this year and the opinion by Judge Susan Bolton that the state law infringed on federal jurisdiction has not provided closure. Instead, it has increased the resolve of Arizonans, none more than Republican Governor Jan Brewer, who argue the federal government has abdicated its responsibility by failing to enforce its own immigration laws. The governor has appealed the ruling and the case is ultimately expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

There is enough demagoguery fuelling this debate to fill the Sonoran Desert. The truth is that the "invasion" of illegal immigrants has resembled more of an exodus since the economy tanked in 2008. The Obama administration is sending 1,200 National Guard troops to police the border starting Sunday and will deport more undocumented immigrants (about 400,000) this year than George W. Bush ever did. Almost half of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States are believed to have arrived legally, on visas or other temporary documents.

But the impressions created by TV news footage of dead bodies turning up in the desert (150 have already been brought to the main border county morgue since the beginning of the year), reports of better-armed drug smugglers winning shootouts with border-patrol agents, and idled day labourers loitering on Arizona street corners are proving too hard to ignore.

Invasion or not, it all spells bad electoral news for Barack Obama and the Democrats - and not just in Arizona. From the industrial heartland, where unionized workers lament "stolen" jobs, to the town of Fremont, Neb. (population 25,000), where citizens just voted for a new bylaw that bans hiring or renting to undocumented immigrants, illegal immigration is a political headache for Democrats.

"President w/no time to visit porous US/Mexican border to offer help to those risking life to secure us, but lotso' time to chat on The View," Sarah Palin told her supporters via Twitter.

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"Politically, in the short term, it obviously helps the Republicans," Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said of the immigration debate. "[But]long term, it's a disaster."

Of course, the long term - when Hispanic voters become one of the country's biggest blocks of voters - is still a few election cycles away.

No Republicans in Congress, not even Mr. McCain, who co-sponsored an immigration reform bill in 2005, are willing now to work with Democrats on a new legislative solution for the 11 million illegals in the country.

That number is certain to grow as the U.S. labour market recovers. "Illegal immigration responds quite accurately to market forces," Mr. Alden explained. "And if you can increase your income five- or seven-fold by crossing the border, that is just an enormous incentive."

It is precisely the prospect of a renewed onslaught of illegal immigrants that is driving calls to finish a multibillion-dollar fence along the Mexican border whose construction began under Mr. Bush. Some kind of fence, of varying heights and materials, currently covers about one-third of the 3,200-kilometre border. But even where it seems most impenetrable, it has hardly deterred those with ladders or blow torches.

As a thorn in Mr. Bush's side, Mr. McCain described the fence as the "least effective" means of controlling the flow of illegal immigrants. But being a maverick apparently means being allowed to change your danged mind.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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