By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio's hardline stance on illegal immigrants has given him a national profile. But a backlash from angry Latinos is turning his bid for re-election into the toughest of his long career.
Republican Arpaio, who turned 80 this year, is seeking a sixth term in the state's most populous county, where a bitter national fight over illegal immigration has helped drive what has become the most costly sheriff's race in U.S. history.
To his supporters, he is a hard-as-nails lawman who locks up county inmates in an austere "Tent City" jail, and does not hesitate to arrest illegal immigrants nor flinch from probing Democratic President Barack Obama's Hawaiian birth certificate.
But for opponents, the man who styles himself "America's Toughest Sheriff," relentlessly profiles brown-skinned Hispanics across the sprawling Phoenix metro area and neglects police work in his tireless pursuit of media glory.
"When you try to do your job, and you are a little controversial, some people don't like it. That's the way it is," Arpaio told Reuters on the sidelines of a rally in suburban Phoenix, where he was feted by a crowd of supporters.
The Maricopa County sheriff, who his campaign says raised an $8.5 million war chest, is a favorite with Phoenix-area Tea Party conservatives who love him for his fights with the Obama administration and support for Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's clampdown on illegal immigration.
On the Democrat ticket, heavily outspent challenger Paul Penzone, who has raised $527,000, is riding a wave of community activism, pushing riled Latinos to vote to end the sheriff's 20-year-stint in office.
While Arpaio draws support from hundreds of enthusiastic supporters at rallies across the sun-baked Phoenix metro region, opponents see much with which to find fault.
He is the target of an ongoing Justice Department lawsuit alleging civil rights abuses by his office, including accusations of widespread racial profiling of Latinos in dozens of immigration "sweeps." Arpaio denies racial profiling.
Critics also cite what they see as the neglect of more than 400 sex-crime cases in a Phoenix suburb, some involving children, while they say deputies focused on rounding up landscapers in traffic stops.
Earlier this year, Arpaio dispatched volunteer posse members to Hawaii to investigate the authenticity of Obama's birth certificate at the request of local Tea Party grassroots activists - a key Arpaio constituency.
He declared the document a forgery even after most Republican critics of Obama had given up pursuing discredited claims that the president was not born in the United States.
"It was a completely absurd waste of time and resources," said Raquel Teran, an activist with the "Joe's Got To Go" campaign. "His priorities have not been to keep Maricopa safe, but to ... campaign while he's in office."
Stepping into the breach is Penzone, a retired 21-year Phoenix police veteran known as the face of the "Silent Witness Program," a tip line that helped snare two serial killers in 2006.
Penzone says he wants to focus on policing he believes was neglected by Arpaio's headline-grabbing policies in a deeply divided community where Latinos make up nearly a third of the 3.9 million population.
"He has turned that office into a machine for his public image and (it) should be a machine for public safety," Penzone told Reuters. "I didn't want to stand by any more on the sidelines."
Penzone, outspent by Arpaio by about 16 to 1, has been aided by a Democratic drive to register Latinos riled by a state immigration crackdown that requires police to check the papers of anyone they stop and suspect is in the country illegally.
The state Democratic Party has said activists registered about 15,000 voters - some new, others re-registered - in recent months, but were not able to say how many were Hispanic.
Penzone is also aided by groups like Citizens for a Better Arizona, which last year helped oust former Republican state senator Russell Pearce, the author of Arizona's immigration clampdown, in a recall election.
But beating the sheriff remains a long shot. Polls vary depending on which candidate paid for them, but all show Arpaio ahead by 4 to 14 percentage points.
One factor is the sheriff's war chest - greater than what many U.S. congressional candidates spend - which has financed an advertising blitz highlighting Arpaio's 50-year law enforcement career that included stints with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Turkey and Mexico, and as its Arizona chief.
Analysts say the blitz was helping consolidate his advantage with a core base of older, white retirees in Phoenix suburbs such as Sun City and Surprise who vote in high numbers and on whom the criticism of Arpaio has little impact.
"To the average older guy, the issue is ‘All he's doing is trying to protect us from the people who are coming across the border,'" said Bruce Merrill, an emeritus political science professor at Arizona State University.
Among that core group is retiree Jim Heath, who admires Arpaio for arresting illegal immigrants and not "coddling" inmates in county jail.
"He's probably not perfect, but I feel the major points ... how he treats the prisoners and tries to enforce the law, that's the decision-maker for me."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)