McCain faces choice after victory

Now that Sen. John McCain has won Arizona’s Republican primary, the question is whether the senator will move back toward the political center.

McCain shifted positions on a range of issues, including campaign finance reform and immigration, in taking on former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) in a Senate primary. The strategy worked, as McCain on Tuesday won a resounding victory.

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The senator, who is expected to easily win a fifth term in November, no longer needs to appeal to conservative primary voters.

Given the political environment, few believe McCain will revert immediately back to the political center.

“Not for now,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.

But many political observers think the man once known as the “maverick” for his habit of taking on his own party will eventually move toward the middle.

“McCain will probably take a couple of baby steps center on a couple of carefully chosen issues,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior analyst at The Cook Political Report.

McCain emerged as President Obama’s critic in chief after his defeat in the 2008 presidential contest, surprising those who thought he might reach out to the new president.

In a scathing speech on the Senate floor in March of 2009, McCain blasted Obama on government spending.

Mocking the White House for failing to speak out against earmarks such as a $1.7 million fund for pig odor research in Iowa, McCain said: “So much for the promise of change, Mr. President. So much for the promise of change.”

The shifts in position and hearty criticism of the president came as a surprise to some political observers who had watched McCain lock horns with his own party throughout his career.

While supporters maintain McCain simply did what he had to do to win in a year when incumbents are more endangered than they have been in decades, the 73-year-old senator attracted a lot of criticism for his effort to appease the Republican base in Arizona.

During an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program on Tuesday, The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said McCain was on the “Say-Anything-to-Get-Elected-Express.”

McCain bristled visibly during the primary campaign, as reporters peppered him about his apparent change of positions on immigration reform and climate change.

McCain has repeatedly said he has not changed his positions, attributing that notion to “the Eastern press.” A McCain spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan, did not respond to a comment for this article.

McCain never underestimated Hayworth, moving quickly to define him and attacking his record in Congress. If McCain hadn’t moved right, his supporters say, he would have risked an embarrassing end to his political career less than two years after his loss to Obama.

Some political analysts like Baker predict McCain will move back toward the middle.

“He’ll move slowly. But I do believe he’ll move,” said Baker. “This is a creature of habit. This is a man who knows and understands the conservative movement in America. But he also knows it can go too far ... He’ll move slowly back to the middle.”

Others are counting on another shift by McCain.

Lynn Tramonte, the deputy director of America’s Voice — a group dedicated to passing comprehensive immigration reform, said, “We need him to come back to where he is.”

She added: “We know he did an abrupt right turn, and we know why. But this project is too important. America needs immigration reform. And we need it sooner rather than later.”

McCain helped lead the fight for immigration reform in 2006 and 2007, but both years it fell short in the Senate. In 2009 and 2010, he has spoken out more forcefully on border-security measures.

Soon after McCain lost to Obama in 2008, there was concern among conservatives that the president and the senator would form an alliance.

At the time, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) penned an op-ed saying McCain could be Obama’s “ace-in-the-hole.”

Santorum wrote, “This unlikely ace can deliver not only the GOP moderates needed to break a filibuster, but also the stamp of bipartisanship: the 2008 GOP standard bearer, John McCain.”

That didn’t happen, but the question for Santorum and other conservatives now is whether McCain might try to take on that role in the next Congress.