Originally Published: February 28, 2012 9:04 p.m.
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 49 percent of the vote in early returns. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum came in second with 24 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took 16 percent, and Rep. Ron Paul won 8 percent.
Yavapai County preliminary results showed Romney getting 41 percent of the Republican ballots, Santorum with 30 percent, Gingrich with 20 percent and Paul with 8 percent. Those were the numbers with 21 of 30 vote centers reporting, alongside most early votes. Yavapai results started coming in at about 8:15 p.m.
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 Arizon'a 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.
The "quiet conservatives" in Arizona pushed Romney to victory, said Yavapai County Republican Party Chair Mal Barrett Jr.
"We do have a pretty good Mormon population in Arizona, but I think what's more important is its retirement population," Barrett added.
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.
Romney will provide global leadership that has been missing, "and he will lead from the front," McCain said.
Many voters cast early ballots, but retired civil engineer Quinn Hutchinson, of Phoenix, was among those who voted the traditional way. He waited until the final day to throw his vote to Romney.
"I had it between Romney and Newt, and I decided that Romney has the experience in government that he needs to go in (and) start from the beginning, not be a president in training," the 84-year-old said.
T.F. Muenter, a 64-year-old retiree in Phoenix, also voted for Romney.
"I like him," Muenter said. "I think he has a lot of good ideas, better than the other guys. I hope he wins it all."
But husband and wife Joe and Evelyn Turany of Phoenix said Romney was too rich and too arrogant to win their favor.
"It would be like exchanging one snob for another snob," Evelyn Turany said. "There is no way a man that wealthy can understand my position."
They voted for Santorum, saying he offered the most conservative values and comes off as the most honest.
"He's a lesser of four evils," said Evelyn Turany, a 75-year-old retired high school teacher. "He's more conservative, and I'm a little tired of the government providing funds to kill babies."
Just under 52 percent of the state's registered Republicans voted in the state's 2008 presidential primary, but Maricopa County Election Director Karen Osborne predicted turnout this year would likely be in the 40- to 50-percent range.
In Flagstaff, Tim Pomeroy, a 48-year-old locksmith, voted for Santorum, saying he was drawn to the senator's message.
"I just like everything he's saying," Pomeroy said. "It's going to be lower taxes and smaller government. The larger the government, the smaller the citizen."
Jerry Slade, 63, of Flagstaff, voted for Gingrich. He said Gingrich was able to work with Democrats in the past and has a solid backbone in politics.
"If he was our nominee, I think he would be one of the strongest ones to straighten out our country," Slade said.
Arizona will send 29 delegates to the Republican convention. That's half of the normal allotment and reflects a penalty imposed because the primary is being held before March 6.
Courier reporter Joanna Dodder contributed to this story.