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Sheriff Joe Arpaio: Have run-ins with Washington cost him votes at home?

Sheriff Joe Arpaio has always won election easily in Arizona's Maricopa County. But this year, after dabbling in birther politics and being sued for alleged racial profiling, he is running hard.

By Lourdes MedranoCorrespondent / October 31, 2012

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks during a campaign rally in Mesa, Arizona, October 27. Arpaio is running for a sixth term and will challenge former Phoenix police officer Paul Penzone for Maricopa County Sheriff during the general election in November.

Joshua Lott/Reuters

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Phoenix

In nearly two decades as sheriff in Arizona's most populous county, Joe Arpaio's carefully crafted reputation for being fearless and tough on crime helped him coast to victory time and again. But as he seeks a sixth term, the veteran lawman is running hard to keep his seat.

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In TV campaign ads and event appearances, Sheriff Arpaio has been forced to tone down his brashness, fend off accusations of racial discrimination against Latinos, and counter recurring complaints over what critics say were lax investigations of sex crimes against children.

"It's been nasty," admits the Maricopa County sheriff, a Republican.

Long known in Arizona for his penchant to engage in unorthodox law enforcement tactics, such as outfitting inmates in pink underwear, Arpaio was thrust onto the national stage in recent years for his crusade against illegal immigration.

His sweeps in mostly Latino neighborhoods and his unwavering support for the state's divisive immigration law, SB 1070, won him admirers near and far. But it also brought lawsuits from Latinos and the Obama administration over various accusations that included racial profiling.

Arpaio's critics now are training the spotlight on his legal troubles in an effort to persuade voters that it's time for a new sheriff in town.

"This is the toughest race he's had so far," says David Berman, a senior research fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

"I think there's a little bit of fatigue, he's been in office for 20 years, he's 80 years old," he adds. "He's been very controversial, and I think people are getting a little bit tired of him, frankly."

Although Arpaio still boasts bedrock support from his party, his foray earlier this year into the birther movement that questions President Obama's birthplace failed to win over GOP allies in the state legislature. Arpaio's probe, which rendered Obama's birth certificate fake, went nowhere.

Critics say Arpaio wasted precious resources on investigating a much-debunked theory outside of his jurisdiction that would've been better spent working cases in Maricopa County.

"Obviously, that upset a lot of people," says Carlos Sierra, co-chair of Citizens for Professional Law Enforcement, an anti-Arpaio group.

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