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Updated Apr 11, 2013 - 3:55 pm

Arizona governor candidate DuVal backs immigrants' rights

PHOENIX -- Arizona's leading Democratic gubernatorial contender pledged Thursday to usher in a friendlier era toward immigrants in a bid that reflects the state's evolving stance on immigration reform.

Fred DuVal, a former Arizona Board of Regents president with deep roots in Democratic Party politics, said he would not continue Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's hard-line immigrant policies that have made the state an epicenter for anti-immigration reform.

DuVal said he supports driver's licenses for young immigrants awarded work permits under a new Obama administration program. He also praised the U.S. Senate's Gang of Eight for working on comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

``For me, it's about education and jobs and growing the economy through exports and simultaneously making sure that every child has an equal shot at life,'' DuVal told The Associated Press Thursday in a telephone interview.

Electing a governor touting progressive immigration policies would mark a sharp turn for Arizona.

Brewer was re-elected in 2010 by riding a wave of support for the state's controversial law on illegal immigration.

She has said Congress must improve border security before extending new rights to immigrants living illegally in the country and insists young people in the Obama administration's deferred-deportation program are still not legal residents eligible for public benefits. Under Brewer, Arizona is one of two states with policies barring driver's licenses for young immigrants in the Obama administration program.

DuVal said his focus is on improving Arizona's damaged image and creating jobs. He downplayed Republicans' vast hold over the state's political landscape. Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats in Arizona, but the GOP controls the Legislature, and immigration reform remains a touchy subject.

Most recently, Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain, a member of the so-called Gang of Eight, was shouted down at a town hall in suburban Phoenix as he advocated for immigration reform. At a different town hall, immigrant activists showered McCain with praise.

``I know it will be a competitive situation, but I think ideas win out,'' DuVal said. ``Our race is not about Rs versus Ds.''

Any Democrat running statewide in Arizona faces an uphill battle, with little hope of winning over the state's hard-right constituency, but backing more moderate immigration policies could help win over some independents and solidify Democratic support in a general election, said Richard Herrera, a political science professor at Arizona State University.

``While it would be difficult for a Republican to get through a primary with that position, it wouldn't be for a Democrat,'' he said. ``Arizona, like most other states and apparently politicians in D.C., are evolving so it's not as hot-button an issue as it was, except for probably Republican primary voters.''

Brewer has hinted she may run again in the 2014 gubernatorial race, but the Arizona Constitution's term limits bar governors and certain other officeholders from serving more than two entire or partial consecutive terms.

Brewer, a Republican, was a midterm replacement for governor when Democrat Janet Napolitano quit to join President Barack Obama's administration in January 2009. Brewer won a full term in 2010 after signing into law the state's strict anti-immigration measure. Parts of the law were later copied by other states grappling with illegal immigration.

DuVal, who launched a gubernatorial exploratory committee in February, shied away Thursday from making his campaign official, saying he is still exploring whether his candidacy is viable.

``This has nothing to do with other candidates,'' he said.

DuVal has moved quickly to line up support from some of the state's top Democratic campaigners. His campaign announced Thursday endorsements from Democratic U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva and former Democratic governors Raul Castro, Rose Mofford and Bruce Babbitt. The announcement helped cement DuVal's status as the early Democratic front-runner.

The campaign also has announced endorsements from state legislators and others in recent weeks in an apparent effort to show widespread support among party activists.

DuVal served as a top aide and adviser to Babbitt both during Babbitt's terms as Arizona governor and his unsuccessful campaign for the 1988 Democratic nomination for president. DuVal served in President Bill Clinton's administration and was appointed by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano to the regents.

Another possible Democratic candidate is House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, a Phoenix Democrat who has signaled interest.

On the Republican side, former Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman has entered the 2014 governor's race, while other possible candidates include Secretary of State Ken Bennett, state Treasurer Doug Ducey and Mesa Mayor Scott Smith.

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