PHOENIX — Gov. Jan Brewer rose to national fame defending the state's immigration law and warning of rising violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, including a claim that headless bodies were turning up in the Arizona desert.
But the claim has come back to haunt her after her stammering debate performance in which she failed to back it up and ignored repeated questions on the issue from a scrum of reporters.
Brewer has spent the time since backtracking and trying to repair the damage done from her cringe-worthy debate against underdog challenger Terry Goddard.
"That was an error, if I said that," the Republican told The Associated Press on Friday. "I misspoke, but you know, let me be clear, I am concerned about the border region because it continues to be reported in Mexico that there's a lot of violence going on and we don't want that going into Arizona."
She said she was referring to beheadings and other cartel-related violence in Mexico in comments she made earlier this summer about decapitated bodies found in the state's southern region.
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Immigration bill boost
Brewer's candidacy caught a big break in April, when she signed a controversial new state immigration law that put local police officers on the front lines of enforcing federal immigration law. At the time, Brewer's primary campaign faced serious challenges, but signing the bill cleared her path to what proved to be an easy primary win on Aug. 24.
A veteran Arizona political observer said her latest gaffes may not sway many voters but could put a charge into Goddard's campaign.
"I think it gave him an opening," said Bruce Merrill, a longtime pollster and retired Arizona State University journalism professor.
Goddard can now play the debate clips over and over as he attacks her competence to lead Arizona.
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Brewer stumbled through her opening statement of the debate Wednesday. She lost her train of thought for more than 10 painful seconds as she laughed, looked down at the table and finally regained her composure.
Goddard, who trailed by 20 points in a July poll, said he brought up the beheadings comments because Brewer hadn't acknowledged she was wrong.
"It's a kind of fear-mongering that has hurt our economy. It has driven jobs away," he said. "She wouldn't come off it."
Staking her claim
Brewer apparently first referred to beheadings during a June 16 interview with Fox News, talking about "the kidnappings and the extortion and the beheadings and the fact that people can't feel safe in their community" in discussing controversy surrounding the immigration law.
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She went further in a June 27 interview on Phoenix television station KPNX when asked about the earlier beheadings claim.
"Oh, our law enforcement agencies have found bodies in the desert, either buried or just lying out there, that have been beheaded," Brewer said.
In fact, there have been beheadings in Mexico in violence associated with criminal cartels that include those active in cross-border smuggling.
And some violence has spilled over the border, including the March slaying of a southern Arizona rancher, Robert Krentz. Law enforcement officials have said they believe Krentz was killed by an illegal immigrant, likely a scout for drug smugglers.
Schooled in skulls
But none of the southern Arizona coroners who handle immigrant cases have seen headless bodies.
Pima County's Dr. Eric Peters said some people might be confused when just skulls are sometimes found in the desert, but that's because of decomposition and animals that feed off bodies. He said it'd be clear if any one of those skulls had been severed from a body.
"You would find what we would call tool marks because you need to use some sort of tool to forcibly remove someone's head from the spine," he said. "You'd see saw marks," even on skulls that have long been in the desert.
It's not the first time the Republican governor, who became governor when Democrat Janet Napolitano resigned to became secretary of U.S. Homeland Security, has drawn criticism for exaggerated remarks. In June, she said most illegal immigrants entering Arizona are being used to transport drugs across the border, an assertion panned by most people who study immigration.
A Republican legislator who was the prime sponsor of Arizona's immigration law said Brewer's critics were just playing games and ignoring the real issue — violence bleeding across the border into the United States.
"I can tell you there's been 300 to 500 beheadings and dismemberments along that border," state Sen. Russell Pearce said Thursday. "It is a national security concern, yet we're worried about this game-playing, this word-smithing."
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