Jan Brewer

Matt York

Not long ago, when the tea party was in full boil, Jan Brewer became a heroine to conservatives across the country with her finger-jabbing defiance of President Obama and the signing of Arizona's tough, show-me-your-papers immigration law.

But lately the state's Republican governor has confounded many and angered others by moving decidedly leftward, proposing a Medicaid expansion under Obama's health-care overhaul - financed by a new tax - and tempering her tone as Washington debates the combustible issue of immigration reform.

Brewer may be recalibrating as the tea party's influence wanes and Latinos gain political strength.

Or she could have an eye on her legacy as she quietly prepares to leave public life after more than 30 years in office.

Either way, her moves have proved Brewer to be a far less predictable politician than the caricature - accidental governor, ditsy ideologue - would have it.

"Where people were kind of chuckling and mumbling about her first year, she walks into a room now and there is genuine regard and applause," said Jason Rose, a Republican strategist who has never been a part of Brewer's circle. "That says a lot about her resilience."

Others are less kind.

The conservative world has rung with denunciations since Brewer announced her support for expanding Medicaid, the federal-state health-care program for the poor and a frequent target of Republicans. A "spectacular flip-flop," sniped The Wall Street Journal editorial page.

"Opportunistic," tutted National Review.

Brewer has repeatedly said her decision, dropped as a bombshell in last month's State of the State address, was grounded in sound fiscal policy.

"Our decision is about whether we will take the action that most benefits Arizona families and businesses," she said at a news conference during a statewide tour to sell her Medicaid plan.

Health care for the poor, and especially for the mentally ill, has been a career-long interest of Brewer, who has an adult son hospitalized because of mental illness.

A Medicare expansion would restore some of the cuts she made - painfully and regretfully, Brewer said - to balance the state budget during the Great Recession.

"I don't think she's as far right as people have painted her," said Earl de Berg, whose Rocky Mountain Poll has surveyed Arizona opinion for more than 40 years. "I think this demonstrates her more moderate conservatism."

Brewer's rhetoric has grown more measured, as passions surrounding illegal immigration have cooled somewhat.

Earlier this month, Brewer took a helicopter tour of the border and renewed her call for "more boots on the ground."

She has done nothing, however, to undermine a bipartisan effort, including Arizona's two Republican senators, to negotiate an immigration overhaul more lenient than her enforcement-only approach.

While other Republicans are proceeding with plans to run for governor in 2014, the incumbent is keeping quiet about her intentions and any political motivations.

It is not the first time Brewer has kept Arizonans guessing. And probably won't be the last.