In one of 2010’s highest-profile races, Arizona’s Democratic attorney general and gubernatorial candidate, Terry Goddard, faced an insurmountable wedge issue: the state’s controversial anti–illegal immigration measure, S.B. 1070.

“The immigration issue was the biggest obstacle, and we didn’t deal with it,” says Goddard. “It was the sword of Damocles and the deciding factor in the whole race.” The controversial measure—popularly known as the Arizona Immigration Law—was the subject of heated national debate from the time of its passage and signing by Governor Jan Brewer last April to its challenge by the U.S. Department of Justice, which ultimately led to a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the most contentious aspects of the law were permissible.

The law allows state police to request documents proving a suspected immigrant is present in the country legally if they have already stopped the suspect for reasons other than suspicion of being an illegal immigrant. Critics of the measure, including members of state and federal government, suspected that the law could create the conditions for state-promoted racial profiling. Goddard urged the governor to veto the law because ”it may have civil rights implications,” but said he would mount a “vigorous defense” of the law in court when it was challenged. However, due to objections raised by Gov. Brewer, Goddard removed himself from the case in June.

Polling consistently showed that Arizonans favored the law. For instance, a September 1 poll by The Morison Institute for Public Policy found that 81 percent of Arizona likely voters (and 68 percent of registered Democrats) favored the most controversial part of the bill, which allowed police to ask for proof that a suspect was in the country legally. Goddard is convinced that his fate was tied directly to public opinion of S.B. 1070. “We saw poll numbers that showed my negatives and positives related almost directly to the pros and cons on 1070,” he says. “It is the biggest wedge issue I have ever encountered.”

During the campaign, Goddard rode the middle on the issue, not insisting on repeal but suggesting that the law was problematic from a civil rights perspective. On the other hand, he repeatedly requested that Democratic Tucson congressman Raul Grijalva cease his calls for a boycott of the state as punishment for the law. Despite his lukewarm opposition to the law once it was passed, Goddard held out hope that Democratic-leaning Hispanics would be motivated to turn out in opposition to Brewer, who strongly supported the controversial law. Indeed, many nonpartisan activists also believed that S.B. 1070 would lead to increased Hispanic turnout. Mia Familia Vota’s Arizona state director, Francisco Heredia, for one, told the Cronkite News Service in September that "Latinos want to do something about this, and they want to do something this year.”

“It didn’t have [a positive] impact on Hispanic voters,” says Goddard. “They had a depressed turnout.” Exit polls showed that Hispanics made up only 13 percent of the Election Day turnout, compared with 16 percent in 2008. And, of those Hispanics that voted for governor, 30 percent went for Brewer, indicating that the immigration law was not a universal negative for them.

Paul Bentz, Brewer’s campaign manager, argues that Goddard’s failure to take a firm stand on the law was more troubling to voters than simply opposing it would have been. Bentz points out that Goddard opposed the bill when it was initially passed, then said he would defend it once it became law, only to hail an injunction handed down by a federal district judge temporarily preventing some of its provisions from taking effect. “Voters never knew where Terry stood on any of the issues,” Bentz says.

Even more vexing for the former attorney general was his seeming inability to leverage performance issues against Brewer. During the election’s only debate, the governor was unable to formulate a coherent opening statement, an apparently fatal misstep for a candidate seeking an office that requires quick thinking. At the very least, selected clips illustrating Brewer’s poor performance would seem to be obvious campaign ad fodder for the Goddard campaign, but when it tested ads featuring parts of Brewer’s debate performance in focus groups, they backfired.

“Her response was so bad, people thought we were being unfair,” says Goddard. “[Focus group participants] essentially came down against me. They thought I was just taking isolated segments out of context.”

After the debate, Brewer was asked about her infamous counterfactual claim that headless bodies had turned up in Arizona’s deserts and that such horrors highlighted the need for robust policing of the borders. The governor’s dismissive response to reporters’ questions about this statement seemed to provide yet more fodder for the Goddard campaign. But here, too, Goddard says that when focus groups were presented with ads exploiting Brewer’s response, they thought his campaign was unnecessarily picking on the governor.

“One of the focus groups was mostly dominated by women, and they took the strongest position that you’re just picking on her,” says Goddard, adding that the phrase repeated throughout the focus groups was “out of context.” “One person picks up a phrase and the others mimic it, and that tends to dominate a focus group. . . ‘No one could behave that badly, I don’t believe it.’ That was the answer we got. That, and we were picking on her unfairly.”

Still, Goddard’s camp produced several ads featuring Brewer’s debate performance. Each asked if Brewer was the “best Arizona can do?” In polls taken before and after the ads featuring Brewer’s debate performance ran, though, Goddard’s numbers, not the governor’s, went down.

According to Bentz, polling by the Brewer campaign found that voters identified with the governor’s lapses and did in fact believe that her opening statement from the debate was taken out of context.

Goddard did manage to attain some traction on budget issues. Focus groups were shown information making the case that Brewer had “failed to make tough choices” on the budget deficit and that, as a result, Arizona was now facing the “worst per-capita budget deficit in the nation.” Goddard says he gained some support from this tactic. “We went from 25 down in one poll to 12 down,” says Goddard. “I guess you could say that was a substantial recovery.”

Still, the budget deficit was not the foremost issue of the election. Goddard says that voters were above all concerned with violence on the border. Fear of illegal immigration , while overblown, was genuinely felt by voters, and Goddard says that people were prepared to vote for someone who gave voice to that fear.

On November 2, Jan Brewer was re-elected by a convincing margin of 12 points. As a candidate, however, Goddard performed admirably, and it is very likely that he will run for office again.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com