PHOENIX, Ariz. - The protesters in the chicken suits arrived at the Republican picnic within minutes of Maricopa County Sheriff - and one of his most famous supporters, action star Steven Seagal.
The self-proclaimed "America's toughest sheriff," surrounded by enthusiastic Republicans, had just been telling reporters the secret to his 20-year reign as the top cop in Arizona's most populous county amid federal civil-rights lawsuits and millions of dollars in legal settlements.
"You know what my secret is? They are," he said, motioning to the cheering crowd that formed around him Saturday at the state Republicans' picnic and candidate rally at Mesa Community College. "They can go after me from the president on down with all their garbage, but it is them - them - that get me elected."
As Arpaio, 80, seeks an unprecedented sixth term in office, he is showcasing his softer side in campaign commercials featuring his work with abused animals and his wife of 55 years while counting on the loyalty of long-time supporters and donations from fans nationwide to ward off what may prove to be the toughest challenge of his political career.
Dogged by protesters at almost every public event - such as the chicken-suited Citizens for a Better Arizona, who want him to participate in debates - Arpaio is on the defensive as never before. He faces a 45-year-old retired Phoenix police sergeant who says he wants to restore professionalism to the office known under Arpaio for jail-house tents, pink underwear and forays into reality TV.
Democrat Paul Penzone's candidacy has been buoyed by support in the Latino community galvanized by opposition to Arpaio, who has become a symbol of Arizona's anti-illegal immigration zeal. The sheriff's so-called "crime suppression" sweeps in mostly Hispanic neighborhoods have made him a hero to those nationwide seeking a crack-down on undocumented residents while angering the county's growing Latino population and drawing a Justice Department civil rights lawsuit, which is continuing.
During a campaign year when there has been much speculation about the impact of the Latino vote, the Maricopa County sheriff's race is the battle on the front line: How well activists mobilize Latino voters to come out against Arpaio may have ripple effects for Democrats up the ticket in the state, including Senate candidate Richard Carmona and President Obama.
Arizona is seeing "an awakening of the Latino community in civic engagement," said Petra Falcon, executive director of Promise Arizona in Action, which has registered with partner groups more than 34,000 new Latino voters this year. Working with the "Adios Arpaio" campaign, they are now trying to turn those registrations into votes for Penzone.
Arpaio "sends fear and terror into the community," Falcon said in her central Phoenix campaign office last weekend. She wore an "Adios Arpaio" T-shirt with the silhouette depiction of a portly sheriff galloping away on his horse. Latino activists helped defeat the author of Arizona's 2010 immigration law, former Senate President Russell Pearce who was ousted in a recall election last year, and now they are focused on Arpaio, she said.
"We want a new sheriff and we think that Paul Penzone can fill the role," she said.
The limited polling in the race shows Penzone continuing to trail Arpaio and struggling with name recognition. Democratic polls peg the gap between the candidates at about 5 percentage points while Republican polls show it three times as large. A poll conducted in mid-October for Project New America, a Denver- based research group with Democratic ties, found 40 percent of those surveyed didn't know who Penzone was.
That's what Promise Arizona in Action campaign workers were trying to change Saturday in South Phoenix's Coffelt Housing project. Devin Del Palacio, 25, and Joel Juarez, 19, went door- to-door to collect early ballots, hand out fliers and spread the word about Penzone - a message complicated by the presence in the race of independent candidate Mike Stauffer, who could siphon anti-Arpaio votes.
"We're really making a huge push," Del Palacio told Rosie Carrillo, 47, when she came out on the porch of her small white public housing unit. "We've got to tell people about Paul Penzone - that's the guy we want."
Carrillo said she doesn't know who Penzone is. Still, she dislikes Arpaio and knows someone who was mistreated in his jails. She filled out her ballot on the spot and gave it to them.
"See you later, Arpaio," she said.
Penzone said he wants to restore law-enforcement fundamentals to a sheriff's office he believes has strayed from its mission - evidenced by Arpaio's inquiry into Obama's birth certificate earlier this year and the resources diverted to immigration busts as serious crimes weren't investigated, he said.
"He really enjoys the notoriety of the position instead of the responsibility," Penzone said. "He talks about how tough he is - it's a prerequisite in law enforcement to be tough. It is a tough job. But effective and efficient is the goal."
While Penzone wouldn't close Tent City - the outdoor jail Arpaio opened in 1993 - he said he would reduce liabilities from poor inmate care. Penzone said he would do a better job patrolling the areas the office is responsible for and fixing what he sees as deficiencies in staffing.
"It's not sexy, it doesn't get a whole lot of media attention, it is just fundamentally sound law enforcement," Penzone said.
He knows a victory for him probably rests with Latinos.
"If there is a strong showing of Latino voters, I think we win," he said.
At the Republican picnic, Chuck and Brenda Stockard of Phoenix said they stand behind Sheriff Joe, as Arpaio is widely known.
"He's obviously doing a good job because he has a lot of people upset with him," said Chuck Stockard, 59, who wears a National Rifle Association T-shirt. Brenda Stockard, 54, who is glad Arpaio investigated Obama's citizenship, said when she talks to people in other states, "they wish they had a sheriff like him."
Before he addressed the crowd, Arpaio, still bristling at protesters who interrupted his media interviews earlier, denied that the race with Penzone is tight and asked why he should debate him: "Why would I give him publicity? People know who I am."
Still, he acknowledges that some voters, especially in the Latino community, may be enthusiastically working for his defeat this year.
"I do know that I have a little more irritation than all my other elections because of the illegal immigration," he said. "I do know that a lot of them don't like what I am doing."
This campaign is "more nasty" than others, he said. "I seem to be the target."
That's because the media won't let him get his story out: he's really a nice guy, he said. He called over Ava Arpaio, 81, to meet a reporter. She wore a gold pendant around her neck, the shape of a sheriff's badge, adorned with sapphires, rubies and diamonds.
"Every time I get elected, I buy her another diamond," Arpaio explained.
After two decades in office, though, the pendant appears complete. Where will they put the next diamond? The sheriff and his wife looked at each other. He's confident he can pull it off, he said.