PHOENIX — If you're running for president, how do you convince supporters you are tough enough on immigration? Get the endorsement of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America whose uncompromising stand on illegal immigration is a point of pride.
On Wednesday Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was the latest Republican presidential candidate hoping for Arpaio's backing. She met in Phoenix with the Republican sheriff, whose endorsement is frequently sought by candidates in all types of races across the country.
Arpaio said he hasn't yet decided which candidate he will back in the GOP primary race.
Bachmann, who was in Arizona for campaign fundraisers, focused almost entirely on immigration during the three minutes she talked to reporters. She then went into a private meeting with Arpaio.
"As president of the United States, I want to solve the border issue," Bachmann said, noting that the nation's immigration problems extend beyond the southern border states. "I want to build the fence that needs to be built and I want to solve this problem."
She said she would also eliminate inducements for illegal immigration into the U.S.
Bachmann wouldn't say whether she supports Arizona's tough immigration enforcement law. A federal judge put the most controversial elements of the law on hold after the Justice Department filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate it.
"I know that as president of the United States, I would not be suing the state of Arizona," Bachmann said. "I would be fulfilling the commitment that the federal government needs to fulfill, and that is to secure our borders."
Arpaio's campaign manager, Chad Willems, said Bachmann has called the sheriff several times, but she isn't the only presidential hopeful to do so. Mitt Romney and Rick Perry have made calls of their own.
"They're all calling him," Willems said, adding that Arpaio will take his time to decide on an endorsement. "They're all in a hurry, of course."
In the 2008 primary race. the sheriff endorsed Romney over home-state candidate John McCain. Romney came in second, behind McCain, who won the state's 2008 primary.
Arpaio, a proven favorite of voters in the county that includes Phoenix, is well-known for his office's crackdown on illegal immigration, which has included conducting numerous raids on workplaces.
However, unrelated, failed investigations targeting county officials and judges were conducted by Arpaio's office and are now under scrutiny for ethics violations.
Bachmann wasn't the only candidate talking immigration with Arizona voters. In Tucson on Wednesday, a crowd of business owners frustrated by the red tape required to bring in highly educated workers asked Bachmann's rival, Mitt Romney, how he would approach legal immigration.
Romney said he would give first priority to foreign workers with graduate degrees. "I want people coming into the country with skills and experience, speaking English, with degrees and contributing to our culture and the capacity of our nation," Romney said, adding that legal immigrants often start their own businesses.1 comment on this story
He said he doesn't want the uneducated or unskilled coming across the border or overstaying their visas, expecting the United States to provide them with education and health care. Later, though, he noted that people from other countries come to the United States looking for opportunities for their families. "They don't come here for handouts," he said.
Later Wednesday Romney told an audience in Sun Lakes, Ariz., that he'd build a border fence and impose heavy sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
"Let's protect legal immigration and make it work for America and the families that come here legally," he told an audience in Sun Lakes, Ariz.
"I will stop illegal immigration," Romney promised, adding later, "It's time to do it."
Associated Press writer Paul Davenport in Sun Lakes, Ariz., contributed to this report.