Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the Arizona Republican presidential primary in a walk on Tuesday, handily defeating his closest challenger, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, by at least 20 points.
Romney claimed the state's 29 delegates and, combined with a razor-thin victory in the Michigan primary the same day, fully re-established himself as the uncontested front-runner in a horse race of a campaign.
Romney was widely thought to have had a triple advantage in Arizona before the primary began. The state's controversial governor, Jan Brewer, endorsed him on Sunday. Although Romney was Sen. John McCain's nemesis in the 2008 presidential campaign, the Arizona senator has spent time on the trail as his champion.
And Romney on Tuesday capitalized on his affinity with Arizona's Mormon population. More than 380,000 Mormons live in the state, just under 6 percent of the population, according to the Arizona Republic, citing figures from the Mormon Church.
Arizona Mormons supported Romney in his 2008 quest for the presidency. Kyle Kondik, a political analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told the Chicago Tribune that 2008 exit polling showed that about 80 percent of the state's Mormon community voted for Romney.
Ironically, should Romney win the nomination, the same identity issues that lifted him in the primary season could be a stumbling block to the presidency. Specifically, it's the issue of immigration, something that Romney has only marginally addressed on the campaign trail.
Republican State Sen. Russell Pearce sponsored Arizona's harsh immigration law (pdf), SB 1070, signed into law by Brewer in April 2010. The law makes it a crime to be in the state without proper immigration papers, and requires police to request a person's immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the country illegally.
The law, which went into effect after a judge's temporary injunction, has been a lightning rod for criticism by civil rights groups, who believe its application would make Arizona fertile ground for state-sanctioned racial profiling, particularly of the state's nearly 2 million Latinos.
Pearce is a member of the Mormon Church.
The schism between Mormons and Latinos can be expected to complicate Romney's drive to duplicate in the general election season the lopsided win he enjoyed in the state on Tuesday night.
That Grand Canyon of a divide is reflected in comments by Kenneth Patrick Smith, leader of a Spanish-speaking Mormon congregation, who told the Arizona Republic that missionaries from his church weren't welcome in Latino communities after the law was signed. Some had doors slammed in their faces.
"They say, 'Why would we want to hear anything from a religion that would do this to the Hispanic community?' " said Smith, who said he spoke for himself, not on behalf of the Mormon Church. "It's a great disconnect, because on one hand the missionaries are out there preaching brotherly love, kindness, charity, tolerance, faith, hope, etc., and then they see on TV a quote-unquote Mormon pushing this legislation that makes them not only … terrified but terrorized."