Clockwise from left, Matthew Jette, Buz Mills, state Treasurer Dean Martin, Gov. Jan Brewer and moderator Ted Simons (back to camera), sat in for a debate of Republican candidates for governor in Phoenix last month. Only Brewer and Jette now remain in the primary contest. ROSS D. FRANKLIN / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

At an appearance this month in Tucson, a confident and smiling Gov. Jan Brewer was on stage, trying to settle down hundreds of tourism conference attendees in the wake of boycotts and a 10 percent drop in business.

She didn't produce much in the way of specifics. "Despite the issue of boycotts or negative publicity, the tourism industry must stay committed to the long-term brand that is uniquely Arizona," she said.

The reception was decidedly muted, but it hardly mattered. Within an hour came the announcement that the last high-profile challenger in her Republican primary had dropped out. Millionaire Buz Mills conceded all the money in the world could not compete with the political juggernaut she has become in the wake of the state's new immigration law.

The good fortune was classic Brewer, whose political resurgence has been a thing to behold, fueled by two big back-to-back wins. First came a sales-tax proposal that voters overwhelmingly approved to at least shore up education, health care and public safety after budget cuts. Then came SB 1070, which critics say was a victory that wasn't even hers to claim.

"She's not showing leadership on border security," said Democratic Party spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson. "She's showing opportunism."

In a recent interview, Brewer, 65, bristled at that notion. Although immigration didn't consume a large chunk of her State of the State speech in January, it was sandwiched between the budget and the economy. In a precursor to what has been her mantra of late, she said then, "Enough is enough. Secure our border."

That kind of talk earned her a standing ovation from hundreds of attendees at the Arizona Cattlemen's Association conference in Tucson Friday night, where she was introduced as "one tough lady." She was interrupted by applause when she said she wouldn't surrender the border battle. "No more jawboning, no more apologies, no quitting, no retreat - from the border to Obamacare, the battle has just joined," she intoned.

Ranch hand Ben Menges, 21, whose family owns the Menges Ranch in Safford, was among her fans. "I like how personable she is," he said. "She's a different type of politician. She's not afraid to be honest."

He said that while he has not had any frightening interactions with illegal immigrants on his land, a neighboring rancher was surrounded by 20 demanding water. The potential for danger on the isolated lands, he said, "is scary."

Back in January, Brewer wasn't getting such rave reviews. Challenged by half a dozen fellow Republicans who were fearful she could lose the seat for the GOP altogether, Brewer was polling in the middle of the pack. She was still stinging from spending her first year in office embroiled in an embarrassing battle with the Legislature over her sales-tax plan.

Guarded early on in her tenure, she grants a limited number of press interviews, unlike her predecessor, Janet Napolitano, who had weekly sparring matches with the press.

In a moment of uncharacteristic candor, Brewer now recalls that early time as the hardest she's had in office. "The weight of Arizona was on my shoulders the first budget year," she said.

She said she found herself on her patio at 3 a.m. numerous times, watching the spinning blades of the ceiling fans, unable to sleep. "It made it tough to be working in that situation when I had a reputation of being a fiscal conservative and a cheerleader for my party for 28 years - and all of a sudden I found myself on the outside looking in. It was a heavy load."

Brewer has done little active campaigning, unless you count her rounds on the national media circuit. She sent surrogates to most of the early candidate forums, saying she's been busy running the state. But she says she thrives on campaigning - she lights up with a wide, ready smile when it comes to gladhanding in crowds - and her fans note she's a hard worker who has won fiercely competitive races before.

"l would like to believe that with my record as a public official for the past 28 years - and now as governor - that people know who Jan Brewer is; that they know what her character is, they know what she stands for."

Do they? She was a lawmaker from Maricopa County from 1983 until 1997, when she was elected to the Maricopa Board of Supervisors. In 2002, she became secretary of state and served there until she became the fifth holder of that office to ascend to governor. But unless they mess something up, secretaries of state are hardly magnets for public attention.

Brewer conceded the point. "You know, being an elected official in a body is so much different than being governor, because you're one person. There's nobody you can share the good times with or the bad times with," she said.

"But since I've been governor," she said, "I moved forward and did what I thought was right. And I have not deviated an inch from what I thought was right for Arizona, and I think it paid off. People know that I am honest and that I care about the state and the people of Arizona. I'm a problem-solver, I'm not afraid of a challenge and I'm not a quitter."

Former Republican state Sen. John Wettaw, a university chemistry professor who often disagreed with Brewer on budget priorities, said Brewer was friendly and well-liked. "We could disagree, but nothing was ever personal. I just plain liked her. And she was nobody's fool."

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Patterson, now chairman of the conservative Goldwater Institute, worked with Brewer when she was the whip, responsible for keeping the caucus together. She was great at that job - likeable enough that people "hated" to say no to her, he recalled.

Patterson said he always regarded her as more of a pragmatist than a rock-ribbed conservative who would "gum up the system because of ideology." And, he said, she never laid claim to being a great leader or a stunning intellect. "It does take some intellectual firepower to be a good leader, and that's the concern," he said, adding that her solution has been to rely heavily on advisers, who made tactical errors early on.

"When she came in, the Legislature for six years had been dealing with Janet Napolitano and getting the worst of it. But the one thing she'd never done - she'd never raised taxes," he said. "So finally, we get our person in office, and the first thing out of the box? She wanted to raise taxes. The timing and psychology of that was hard to take."

Former state Sen. Ruth Solomon, a Tucson Democrat, also credited Brewer with being "fun to work with" - and while very partisan, not unkind. But she found Brewer didn't have a lot of depth. "It was clear to many of us that she often didn't look at the big picture and the implications," Solomon recalled.

She points to statements Brewer has made about beheadings and body parts in the desert, which have been panned by law enforcement officials.

Solomon said her Republican brother-in-law from New Jersey considered canceling an October trip to Scottsdale because he was worried about how safe he'd be at the Phoenix airport. "I just thought, 'This is absurd,' " Solomon said. "She doesn't seem to be thinking about how the rhetoric could play out. I think she's not been well-coached."

Her primary challenger, Matt Jette, moved to Arizona in 2001. The 37-year-old, laid off from his job selling pharmaceuticals, has a doctorate from Arizona State University in political science and will teach at Thunderbird School of Global Management in the fall. He hasn't served in political office, and a check of his registration shows while he's been a registered Republican, his voting has been limited to general elections, not primaries.

He describes himself as such an introvert that he doesn't like to read his name in print and doing press interviews makes him tired.

He's been running an unorthodox campaign, going to Republican gatherings and lecturing them about the dangers of a rightward shift.

Jette was at a forum earlier this week in which one of the candidates said Democrats want amnesty because they killed off so many of their voters through abortion that they need to replenish their voter ranks. "I laughed out loud," he said, adding the guy got applause from one third to one-half of the room. Did he get any? No.

"This party has gone too far to the right. And it wants to blame immigration for everything. If I stub my toe in the morning, it seems I have to blame immigration in some way."

He said he got into the race in August because he was unhappy with cuts to the state's health-care program for the indigent, didn't like the direction education was going and was dismayed that the economy wasn't a bigger focus. He said the state won't be able to attract new jobs in the energy, biosciences and high-tech industries unless it has a strong educational core.

Jette said he's not in this race to make a point. "I'm in it to win it," he said, saying he gives independents and moderate Republicans a choice. "There are a lot of anti-Jan votes out there. She was polling low before 1070 - and now people need to ask themselves, from July 30 forward, do you trust Jan Brewer with the economy, with education and with health care?"

The two will face off Aug. 24. Early voting starts Thursday.

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 573-4243 or