PRESCOTT VALLEY - The Yavapai Tea Party gathered at a rural church a few days ago to discuss the all-too-familiar topic of illegal immigration. Among the conservative, mostly over-55 crowd, it is a subject seen in black and white. Build a fence, add agents, reject amnesty - period.
Then the conversation turned to the subject on everyone's mind, if not the agenda: Paul Babeu, the conservative Arizona sheriff and Republican candidate for Congress who less than a week earlier had admitted that he is gay.
Babeu's "coming out" in a Feb. 18 news conference was surreal enough. Then there was the startling reason for the sudden admission: a news story in which a former lover accused Babeu of threatening his immigration status if he revealed their relationship. Babeu denies this.
The conversations since then have raised questions about Babeu and his "choices" and judgment, about whether the sheriff somehow abused his power.
Yet voters, Republican voters in particular, are also asking some questions of themselves, about acceptance and identity and values, about what really matters most to them.
Said Bill Halpin, a 64-year-old ex-Air Force pilot who serves on the local tea party board: "I care less. I just care less. Don't preach it on me. Don't push it on me and, by golly, I respect your rights."
Mona Patton, the 60-year-old real estate agent who is the group's president, put it this way: "I'm a Christian, but who am I to make a judgment about somebody else?
"I still believe in him. I still back him."
"This may be a litmus test," she said, not just of whether a gay man can survive running for Congress in a deeply conservative district in a red state, but of the contrast between how far society has come - and still has to go. "I have many, many, many friends in my life that are gay ... and I don't have issues with it. But, you know, it's a hurdle for a lot of people, and it's, I think, a shame. ... I think he's going to have a hard row to hoe," Patton said
Some Arizona political insiders were quick to declare Babeu's congressional aspirations over. The reaction has thus far not been what some expected.
When Babeu posted a link to his coming-out news conference on his Facebook page and implored voters to "stand with me as we talk about the issues that matter," more than 1,000 comments flooded in.
While some said that the sheriff had lost their support, the vast majority supported Babeu.
"First gay man I can agree with," read one post.
"We conservatives have his back," said another.
Babeu's campaign manager and attorney Chris DeRose said Friday that Babeu had received $17,000 in political donations since the news conference, and that his supporters in Arizona "are more enthusiastic than ever."
Whether this is all just political posturing or political correctness that may soon fade remains to be seen. Babeu, who declined an interview request, has vowed to stay in the congressional race, and the primary is still six months off.
There have been no openly gay Republicans in Congress since U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe of Tucson retired in 2006. Kolbe, who was elected in 1985 and disclosed in 1996 that he was gay, last week endorsed Babeu.
"I think in a few years the media won't be paying that much attention to this issue," Kolbe said. "The public clearly is ahead of the media on this ... The issue is whether Paul's a good candidate for Congress or not, and I think he is."
Some voters contacted for this story were hesitant to discuss the situation. But the ones who did appeared to be muddling through their feelings about the situation in ways that shunned the extremes.
Consider Republican Shawna Thornton, 38, a before-and-after Babeu supporter from Lake Havasu City: "I'm finding that people are more middle of the road, less extreme, more accepting of how different people are deep down inside."
Some were more hesitant.
"Well ... I just think that ... You know, I don't know," said Barry Denton, 52, president of the Yavapai Republican Men's Forum.
"I don't agree with his lifestyle. That's his business," he said, "But as far as what he's accomplished, it's been impressive. ... I'm just disappointed."
Denton hasn't picked a candidate to back. When asked whether all of this might persuade him to choose someone other than Babeu, he said: "I haven't come to any conclusion there yet."