BY PAULINE ARRILLAGA, AP NATIONAL WRITER
And so it was all the more striking when, off to the side in a room with "Jesus Loves Us!!" written on a chalkboard, the conversation turned to the subject on everyone's mind, if not the agenda: The conservative Arizona sheriff and Republican candidate for Congress who less than a week earlier had admitted to reporters, his constituents - indeed to the world - that he is gay.
The absolutes were, in large part, absent.
Consider the comments of 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." And this from Mona Patton, the 60-year-old real estate agent who is the group's president: "I'm a Christian, but who am I to make a judgment about somebody else? I don't have that right, and I look beyond that. ... I still believe in him. I still back him. I still like him. That doesn't affect that."
Sheriff Paul Babeu's "coming out" moment on Feb. 18 was surreal enough, given the man, his politics and the venue - a news conference in front of the Pinal County Sheriff's Department with Babeu, in uniform, surrounded by deputies. Then, of course, there was the startling reason for the sudden admission: a story in an alternative weekly publication in which a former lover accused Babeu of threatening his immigration status if he revealed their relationship.
Now the conversations that have ensued here since - in one of the most politically conservative states in all the union - are astonishing in their own right. There are questions, many of them, about Babeu and his "choices" and judgment, about whether the sheriff may have somehow abused his power. Yet voters, Republican voters in particular, are also asking some intriguing questions of themselves, about acceptance and identity and values, about what really matters most to them.