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After weeks of criticism — and rising poll numbers — in the wake of controversial remarks on immigration, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTHE MEMO: Trump takes the fight to Congress Protesters rally outside NYT in support of media Poll: Majority thinks media too critical of Trump MORE brings his spotlight to Arizona, a longtime hotbed of border security debate.
The Republican presidential candidate is joining forces at a rally Saturday afternoon with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an immigration hardliner who has said illegal aliens in his jurisdiction can expect a “free ride to jail.”
The event shows Trump has no intent of softening his rhetoric, which is unnerving Republicans even as the outspoken billionaire has gone sky-high in the polls.
The GOP establishment is worried that Trump will hurt it, but the business mogul is also sounding a note that some grassroots Republicans want to hear.
“Trump’s touched more than a nerve. He’s connected to a zeitgeist,” Steve Deace, a conservative radio host, told The Hill of Trump’s resonance with right-wing voters.
“[His immigration stance] is not always eloquently worded, but it is the spirit of what most of the GOP base actually thinks,” he added.
Trump’s campaign on Friday announced it was moving the rally to the Phoenix Convention Center, a larger venue than the originally planned Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa, after rising demand from potential attendees.
The Arizona Republic reported Friday that RSVPs show 3,500 people plan on attending the address.
Deace said Phoenix is the right spot for Trump to parlay his immigration stance into rabid support.
“Symbolically, it is quite significant as one of our main border states,” he said of Arizona.
Trump has weathered three weeks of national outrage over remarks made during his formal campaign launch last month.
He sharply criticized Hispanic immigrants and Mexico during the address on June 16.
“They’re sending people who have a lot of problems,” Trump said during his announcement speech at New York’s Trump Tower. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he said. “And some, I assume, are good people.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus reportedly spoke with Trump by phone Wednesday, asking him to stop his outbursts on the topic.
Trump has seen a barrage of business entities terminate relationships with him since the comments. Macy’s, NBC and Univision have each cut ties with the candidate in the wake of his diatribe.
He also received criticism from fellow candidates, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
The abrasive remarks have not hurt Trump’s standing with Republican voters, though.
An Economist/YouGov poll released Thursday found that the billionaire businessman is the preferred GOP nominee for president among 15 percent of respondents.
Bush and Sen. Rand Paul (R- Ky.), his nearest competition, tied for second with 11 percent each.
Another sampling published Wednesday showed Trump also leading the Republican field in North Carolina. He has the support of 16 percent of GOP primary voters there, according to the left-leaning Public Policy Polling.
Immigration reform advocate Mark Krikorian on Friday said voters’ growing admiration for Trump is a reflection of their need for a champion on illegal immigration.
“Trump resonates with people who are tired of hearing lies and clichés from conventional politicians, both Republicans and Democrats,” said Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
“People from the left and the right are thirsting for candidates who are going to address their concerns,” he said. “Ordinary Americans across the political spectrum believe that if we have an immigration policy, we should be enforcing it.”
The rally also shows Trump is not backing down on immigration despite GOP fears that he is tarnishing their brand.
Arizona’s Republican Party made it clear Friday it is not involved in Trump’s appearance in Phoenix this weekend.
“Immigration is an important issue, which is why all the candidates in the Republican presidential primary are talking about it,” Tim Sifert, a spokesman for the Arizona GOP, told The Hill.
“As a border state, border security is a big part of that concern on the part of voters in Arizona, and these issues are being played out in the electoral process,” he said.
“The state party did not play a direct role in Trump’s visit this weekend, but all the Republican presidential candidates that have visited Arizona in the last few months have had well-attended events, and we expect that tradition to continue.”
Krikorian said Trump’s rally could become a turning point for how Republicans approach immigration during the next election cycle.
“Trump can serve a useful purpose if he is the canary in the coal mine warning the Republican Party of the political danger here,” he said.
If Trump’s event goes off without a hitch and sees huge, passionate crowds, it could force his opponents to the right on immigration.
“It is obvious that none of the other Republican candidates have made immigration enforcement a central part of their campaigns,” Krikorian said.
“If they don’t, Trump might keep getting more and more rallies,” he added. “If the rodeo clown is the only candidate that is addressing the issues you care about, you’re going to listen to the rodeo clown.”