Debating in Mesa, the Republican presidential primary candidates blasted the Obama administration on its handling of the key Arizona issue of immigration.

Frontrunners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum specifically mentioned Arizona during Wednesday's CNN debate and called for the state's policies to be implemented nationally.

Immigration was the most Arizona-focused issue and one of the few areas where the candidates didn't spar over positions. And unlike questions about economic growth, cutting the deficit, earmarks, birth control or Iran, they didn't attack each other for past statements.

Romney said Arizona's immigration laws are a model to follow. He praised the e-verify program to confirm a potential employee's immigration status, saying it cut the number of undocumented immigrants in the state by 14 percent, compared with 7 percent nationwide. The former Massachusetts governor blasted the Obama administration for its lawsuit against Arizona's anti-illegal immigration law, SB 1070.

"I will drop those lawsuits on day one and I'll also complete the fence," Romney said.

Santorum also gave a nod to Arizona, saying Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Arizona should pursue immigration policies as they see fit. The former New York senator said he would detain and deport undocumented immigrants who are present or seeking employment.

King asked Santorum if he would sanction people who employ undocumented workers performing household work.

"I'm not going to require homeowners to e-verify," Santorum said. "I think that's one step too far."

CNN showed Arpaio in the auditorium when he was first mentioned, drawing cheers from the audience.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul said a welfare state draws illegal immigrants for schooling, healthcare and more. He said rather than the U.S. putting resources on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the nation should deploy more immigration officers on the border with Mexico.

"Certainly this president is not doing a very good job," Paul said.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich touted his work to build a fence along the Mexican border near San Diego, which he said "worked dramatically." But the fence didn't continue because of environmental concerns, Gingrich said he's waive all federal regulations and studies. He estimated the $3 million-a-mile cost of constructing a wall could be done for just 10 percent of that by modernizing government. He pledged to have the fence in place by January 2014.

Gingrich said he would relocate up to half the 23,000 Department of Homeland Security employees to the border states of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

"It is utterly stupid to say the United States government cannot control the border," Gingrich said.

Gingrich said he voted for a 1986 immigration reform bill under President Ronald Reagan, only to get short-changed when Congress later failed to pass legislation to improve border security and a guest-worker program. He said Congress is unable to pass a comprehensive immigration bill today, so he would work on bill at a time. The first, he said, would address border control.

Gov. Jan Brewer fought for Republicans to hold one debate in Arizona to bring some of the state's unique issues into the national debate.

After the debate, Brewer told CNN she was inspired and thought the candidates turned in "fabulous" performances. She said the calls for building a border fence and stronger laws struck a chord with her. Brewer didn't endorse a candidate but praised Gingrich for wanting to work more closely with border states on immigration.

"I like exactly what Newt Gingrich said about really working with the governors of those states, but that doesn't mean that other candidates wouldn't do that," Brewer said.

At a debate viewing party outside the Mesa Arts Center, Mesa resident Steve Ketchum said he was satisfied with the attention local issues got.

"They covered national issues - which we care about - and local ones too, like the border, charter schools, and public education, along with the family," he said.

Tom Carty of Tempe said he agreed with most of what the candidates said about immigration.

"None of their answers really surprised me," Carty said. "The fence, more border patrol, whatever it takes. Those all seem necessary. We need more homeland security. Get them out of Washington and over here."

Andrew Hedlund contributed to this report

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