McCain protects right flank as primary looms

More politically vulnerable in his August primary than in the November general election, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has moved to the right since his unsuccessful presidential bid.

To shore up his right flank, McCain has drifted away from some of the issues he championed years ago. He gave a muted response to the recent

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Supreme Court decision that lifted restrictions he helped pass on campaign spending. He’s also stopped pushing for immigration reform and, contrary to some GOP fears a year ago, has been one of President Barack Obama’s fiercest critics.

Moreover, McCain has been paying close attention to issues that hit home, including proposed cuts to Medicare, which would affect thousands of seniors in Arizona.

Former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) is challenging McCain in the primary. And McCain is not taking Hayworth lightly.

“I always anticipate tough campaigns,” McCain told The Hill last week. “Every election you have to earn the voters’ vote, and that’s what I’ve always done, always will.”

A Hayworth upset would tarnish the long legacy of McCain, who is still viewed by some Republicans as the face of the party.

However, some conservatives in Washington and Arizona never have embraced McCain.  

Rodolfo Espino, a professor at Arizona State University, said, “McCain is considered to be further to the left than Hayworth, but you look at his career, his voting record since 2000, he has been shifting more and more to the right over the years.”

Hayworth, who plans to enter the race officially on Feb. 15, is trying to peg McCain as a “big spender.”

“Despite trying to cultivate an image as a fiscal hawk, he’s been a big spender,” Hayworth said, pointing to McCain’s support for the 2008 Wall Street bailout bill.

The former congressman also noted McCain’s opposition to the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 as a sign he isn’t a true fiscal conservative. “John voted against the tax cuts that I worked so hard to enact and actually helped write,” he said.

Asked about McCain’s votes, a senior McCain aide said: “They neglect to realize that the reason why Sen. McCain voted against that was because of spending. … The spending was completely out of control at that time, which Mr. Hayworth, if he doesn’t remember, was actually part of the spending problem over in the House.”

The aide added, “I don’t think he’s seen an appropriations bill that he hasn’t voted for.”

Hayworth also backed a $395 billion Medicare prescription drug bill that was not paid for. McCain rallied against it at the time.

Hayworth voted for McCain in the 2008 presidential election but did not contribute to the senator’s campaign, according to a Hayworth spokesman.

Without a strong Democratic candidate yet in the race, political observers say the primary will be McCain’s biggest reelection hurdle.

McCain has reason to be concerned. According to a recent Rocky Mountain Poll, his favorable rating in Arizona has dropped to 40 percent overall, the lowest level since January 1994, when he was recovering from the Keating Five scandal, according to the Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center, which conducted the survey. Among Republicans, 52 percent approve of his job performance while 14 percent give him poor marks.

This normally wouldn’t be a tough race for McCain, said Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.): “The issue is there is this latent anti-incumbent, anti-establishment sentiment that J.D. can tap into.”

A recent Rasmussen Reports poll found McCain had a 22-point lead over Hayworth among Republicans. An earlier poll had McCain up only two percentage points.

McCain entered 2010 with some $5 million in the bank. Hayworth hasn’t started fundraising yet, but his campaign said that it has scheduled events “around the country” and will drop 100,000 mail pieces to coincide with the kickoff.

The 73-year-old senator has been especially focused on local issues during the 2010 cycle. He has pushed a bill that would facilitate a land exchange between Resolution Copper Mining and the federal government, thereby opening up new territory to copper mining. He made two trips last year to Superior, Ariz. — a town in the state’s “copper triangle” that’s been devastated by job losses.

“Sen. McCain’s really taken an active role,” one observer said on background.

Some believe that illegal immigration will be the central issue in the campaign.

Unemployment in Arizona is hovering around 9 percent and many workers are anxious about undocumented immigrants taking the few available jobs.

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Despite reports that illegal immigration has decreased, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has kept the issue in the local headlines with his frequent workplace raids.

“You hear a lot of discussion on the ground — ‘Oh, McCain, he’s pro-amnesty,’ ” said Espino, the Arizona State University professor. “Certainly Hayworth takes advantage of that.”

But running a campaign against McCain based primarily on opposition to illegal immigration will be problematic, Shadegg said.

“Immigration will always be an issue in Arizona, but it’s an issue that cuts two directions,” he noted. “It is an issue that has got a relatively small group of people worked up.”

McCain is unlikely to face a tough vote on comprehensive immigration reform because it is far down on the Democrats’ agenda in 2010.

Since losing his race to now-Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.) in the 2006 cycle, Hayworth has worked as a radio host in Phoenix, where “he’s built that Glenn Beck type of following,” said Espino.

According to Hayworth, it’s his listeners who have helped him “reconnect” with voters’ anxieties. Hayworth recently quit his radio job to prepare for his campaign against McCain.

McCain has the support of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and all of Hayworth’s former Republican colleagues from Arizona who are still serving in the lower chamber.

Sarah Palin, McCain’s 2008 running mate, is planning to campaign with the four-term senator next month.

Hayworth has the backing of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and is getting support from Tea Party groups in Arizona.

Last Saturday, Hayworth got a warm reception at what was dubbed the “Super Bowl” of Tea Parties, in Mesa, Ariz.

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“Man, did we meet a lot of people who want to volunteer for this campaign,” he said. “The energy of enthusiasm of those that align themselves with the Tea Party movement is something that I welcome very much, and I will work to make sure it comes to full flower for the August primary.”

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) isn’t convinced that Hayworth can monopolize the support of Tea Party activists.

“The Tea Party movement — my read of it, anyways — is focused mostly on fiscal issues,” Flake said. “McCain is far more of a fiscal conservative than Hayworth is.”