As the presidential race again turns West, Ted Cruz is zeroing in on what has become the defining issue of the Republican nominating process: illegal immigration.
On Friday, that renewed focus brought the U.S. senator from Texas to Arizona, a state that has spawned heated debates over handling people in the country illegally. Cruz, returning to the campaign trail after a two-day hiatus, is vying there in the primary Tuesday with billionaire Donald Trump, whose candidacy has centered on incendiary rhetoric against illegal immigration — and endless promises to build a wall along the southern border.
After touring a stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border Friday afternoon, Cruz made clear he does not plan to cede any territory to Trump on the issue, vowing as president to reverse federal inaction on border security and calling for more "boots on the ground" in the fight against illegal immigration.
"You know, President Obama tells us how the border is secure," said Cruz, flanked by former Gov. Rick Perry and local law enforcement officials. "Well, I invite him: Move the White House down to the southern border. Let's see how secure it is."
Cruz also refuted the idea, held by many members of the opposing party, that the majority of people illegally crossing the border are in search of a better life. Cruz begged to differ, recalling horror stories relayed to him earlier in the day at a lunch with local ranchers.
"They are not good-hearted social workers with beards and Birkenstocks," Cruz said. "They are hardened, vicious, violent criminals."
Cruz is hoping his tough immigration stances will give him an advantage in Arizona, where Trump is favored in the winner-take-all primary Tuesday. On Friday, Cruz praised Arizona state legislators for passing Senate Bill 1070, lightning-rod legislation that authorized police to check the immigration status of people during traffic stops, among other things.
Cruz's campaign is airing an emotional TV ad in the state that takes a page out of Trump's playbook, spotlighting a crime committed by someone in the country illegally. In Cruz's 30-second commercial, an Arizona father, Steve Ronnebeck, describes how his son, while working an overnight shift, was allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant.
"He should have been deported," Ronnebeck says, facing the camera. "My son's death was completely preventable."
Cruz was joined by Ronnebeck on Friday at the border, where the Texas senator said the father's story is "far too common. In every state of the union, there are people who have lost their lives to criminal illegal aliens."
Winning the immigration mantle may not be an easy task in Arizona, where Trump has the support of hardliners on the issue like Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former Gov. Jan Brewer. Trump is scheduled to hold two rallies Saturday in the state, a morning event in Phoenix and afternoon rally in Tucson.
Cruz's supporters in the state acknowledge Trump has gained traction as a top opponent of illegal immigration in the Republican field.
"I think there is a section of people that believe that, including some I know," said state Sen. Debbie Lesko, a former Rubio supporter who co-sponsored SB 1070. "The thing is that I try to tell them, 'Please look at their record,' and I would rely on someone’s that’s been consistent all along versus someone who changes their mind day to day."
Cruz's campaign is not certain of its chances in Arizona, where more than half the electorate has already voted. That means the outcome Tuesday will reflect an anti-Trump field that was more splintered than it currently is.
"The division that we had … will be reflected in the early votes," Trent Franks, an Arizona congressman supporting Cruz, said Thursday in an interview. "I’m strongly convinced Mr. Cruz will win among the late voters when he has more of a one-on-one."
Cruz was scheduled to hold one more event Friday in Arizona, a rally at night in Phoenix. The rally, hosted by a pro-Cruz super PAC, was expected to include two former rivals who have endorsed Cruz — Perry and retired Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.