The Republican Party's frontrunner for governor, Attorney General Bill McCollum, threw his support Thursday behind a tough new immigration law in Arizona that he criticized as "far out'' just two weeks ago.
The law makes it a crime for immigrants not to carry legal papers and gives local police the power to question people suspected of being in the United States illegally.
Passed in a capitol 1,600 miles away from Tallahassee, the law is nevertheless emerging as a campaign issue in Florida as candidates jockey for the conservative voters who dominate Republican primaries.
By coming out in favor of the law, McCollum joined U.S. Senate contender Marco Rubio in abandoning his previous opposition to the toughest crackdown on illegal immigration in the nation.
Both have said they changed positions in light of amendments that aimed to outlaw ethnic and racial profiling by the police.
"I support Arizona's law as amended, and if the federal government fails to secure our borders and solve the problem of illegal immigration, I would support a similar law for Florida,'' McCollum said in a statement Thursday.
But the amendments didn't change a single vote in the Arizona Legislature or quash a mounting backlash from Hispanic and religious groups. On Thursday, a group of Arizona religious leaders made an "emergency'' lobbying trip to Washington, the Associated Press reported, while the city of Los Angeles joined about a dozen other municipalities in declaring a boycott of Arizona.
That elicited a response from one of the major Republican candidates for Florida attorney general, Holly Benson, who said: "Illegal immigration is a serious problem facing our country and it is unfortunate that the Los Angeles City Council came down in support of illegal activity, over the actions of Arizona's attempt to enforce the law.''
McCollum's flip-flop comes days after a recent poll showed him losing ground to an unexpected and well-financed Republican rival, Rick Scott, who backs the Arizona law.
After spending at least $4.7 million on a statewide television blitz, the little-known former health care executive is capturing 24 percent of the Republican vote, according to a Mason-Dixon poll. McCollum, who has been in politics for two decades, received 38 percent in the poll.
The leading Democratic candidate for governor, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, opposes the law. So do Rubio's major Senate rivals, the newly independent Gov. Charlie Crist and Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami.
When first asked about the law on April 27, McCollum said, "I think Arizona has its own unique problems. I don't think Florida should enact laws like this quite that far out.''
On Thursday, McCollum issued a statement that said, "Arizona leaders recently made needed changes that address concerns I had that the law could be abused and misused to perform racially profiled stops and arrests. I do not support any measure that would result in racial profiling or other unintended consequences for law-abiding American citizens.''
Critics of the law — including some conservative Republicans — say that without any clearly defined criteria, police will be forced to base their suspicions about a person's legal status on their nationality or language skills. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, called the law "morally reprehensible.''
"How would a law enforcement officer deem it appropriate or have some inclination that someone was undocumented?'' he asked. "Are they wearing a shirt that says 'undocumented'? Is there a dressing motif particular to this community?''
The contentious debate over the 2006 legislation in Congress to allow illegal immigrants to earn citizenship was partly blamed for turning Hispanics away from the Republican Party in 2006 and 2008.
"Hispanics are going to remember in the future whether candidates supported us at this historic moment,'' said Juan Hernandez, a political consultant who directed Hispanic outreach for John McCain in his 2008 presidential campaign.
One of the most prominent Florida critics of the law, former Gov. Jeb Bush, said last month that the law "creates unintended consequences.''
Hispanic supporters of McCollum cautioned that the law could lead to immigration enforcement that targets Spanish speakers.
"I am reconsidering my endorsement,'' said state Rep. Juan Zapata, a member of McCollum's leadership team in Miami-Dade County. "All this law does is fuel an anti-Hispanic fire. … All it does is cause fear and innocent people to be persecuted. If you happen to look Hispanic, they're going to go after you? What about an elderly person who doesn't speak English?''
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.