The Arizona Republic, David Kadlubowski) MARICOPA COUNTY OUT; MAGS OUT;, Associated Press
PHOENIX — Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won Arizona's primary Tuesday, with exit polls showing he earned support from a broad cross-section of Republicans.
Jobs and the economy were the issues most important to Arizona's GOP voters, exit polls showed. But voters were split on what to do about the issue of illegal immigration, which has embroiled the state in controversy in recent years but has lost its overarching status.
Only 13 percent of Arizona voters called immigration the most important issue in the race, exit polls showed, and voters were split almost evenly in thirds when asked if illegal immigrants should be deported, allowed to stay as temporary workers or offered a chance to apply for citizenship.
Romney took 47 percent of the vote. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum came in second with 27 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took 16 percent, and Rep. Ron Paul won 8 percent.
With victories in Arizona and Michigan on Tuesday, "it is inevitable the next president of the United States will be ... Mitt Romney," said Arizona Sen. John McCain, who defeated Romney in the state's 2008 GOP primary.
"This has been a fun ride, and it's only just beginning," Romney's Arizona campaign co-chair, state House Speaker Andy Tobin, told a crowd of supporters gathered at a downtown hotel. "The governor has won the most conservative state in America and won overwhelmingly."
Romney's campaign built a solid base by encouraging supporters to cast early ballots and then solidified the winning effort with Romney's performance in the Feb. 22 debate in Mesa, Tobin said.
"We had a machine in Arizona," Tobin said. "With the polls as volatile as they are ... locking up early ballots is huge. It gives you a good baseline, a good cover if you have a close race."
According to exit poll results, Romney captured pluralities of support from voters across sex, race, age education and income.
Santorum was even with Romney only among voters who called themselves "very conservative." Even among voters who said they strongly support the tea party, Romney and Santorum were about even.
Romney drew overwhelming support from fellow Mormons and had about the same support from Catholics as Santorum, who is Catholic.
Each captured about one-third of the Hispanic vote, with Gingrich and Paul splitting the rest. Gingrich has been considered the favorite for Hispanics on the issue of immigration, as he was the only candidate to support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country.
But fewer than one in 10 voters were Hispanic, and political watchers said many voters here have grown weary of the rhetoric that has dominated state politics and early debates in the race.
"It is still a key issue," said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Republican-funded Hispanic Leadership Network. "I think that there will be a lot more discussion in a more rational tone when it comes to the general election," she said.
This year's Arizona primary was overshadowed by Michigan's contest on the same day.
Both states have nearly the same number of delegates, but Arizona's contest is winner-take-all, giving a candidate not expecting to win the statewide vote little incentive to campaign in Arizona.
Romney was the only candidate to run ads in the state. There was little in-person campaigning by candidates other than right before a debate held in Mesa last week between Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul.
McCain called Romney's Arizona win "a ringing endorsement of support."
The economy remains the nation's most pressing issue, McCain said, but global concerns cannot be ignored.
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