J. D. Hayworth banks on Tea Parties to overcome Sen. McCain

PHOENIX — As Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainHow House Republicans scrambled the Russia probe The Hill's 12:30 Report The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by CVS Health - A pivotal day for House Republicans on immigration MORE built his largest rallies of the primary campaign, J.D. Hayworth spent the weekend talking with activists at intimate, Tea Party-affiliated events.

“I think it’s vital to have Tea Party support,” Hayworth said at a barbecue sponsored by several anti-tax groups in the resort community of Carefree Saturday. “A lot of people [are] getting involved for the first time. It’s 1994 to the 10th power.”

New blood is pumping into Arizona politics, fueled by a battle over a state sales tax increase, Washington’s legislative sausage-making and the ease of organizing a Tea Party franchise online. Hayworth wants to ride that wave of anti-incumbency into office and is hoping that Arizona’s Senate Republican primary draws national attention from conservative activists. Already his Phoenix campaign office, which hosts a paid staff of six, has been wallpapered with supporters’ letters from around the country. Many of the notes came with checks, which have put him just shy of reaching his $1 million fundraising goal for March.

The McCain campaign has moved aggressively to curb Hayworth’s momentum with the Tea Party movement. It’s already spent close to $1 million on FM and AM radio ads emphasizing that “character matters” in this race and in some cases attacking Hayworth’s record on spending.

During her two-day trip to Arizona, Sarah Palin stressed activists could trust McCain — although Hayworth pointed out “there wasn’t a cross word or an attack on me” during her speeches. Moreover, he noted that in a recent Rasmussen Reports poll he was closing the gap on McCain. “This is a very different year. The McCain campaign has spent what already? One million, one hundred thousand dollars, largely in attack ads against me, and look what’s happened — a 13-point swing to my side, the margin cut to seven points,” Hayworth said.

The McCain camp shrugged off the Rasmussen results and maintains its ads have served to define this race and denied Hayworth any real momentum. “Arizona Republicans are becoming increasingly concerned about Congressman Hayworth’s long record of supporting and exploiting the wasteful and corrupting earmarking process and voting for billions in pork barrel spending — including the notorious ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’ ” McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said in a statement.

The former six-term congressman is also up on AM radio, although not as frequently as McCain. Sources said Hayworth has instead diverted money to buy fundraising lists and Internet advertising, including a banner ad on the Drudge Report. Neither campaign has invested in a significant visible presence. Lawn signs are almost nonexistent, and on the billboards lining the busy Interstate 10 Phoenix-Tucson corridor there were no prominent campaign advertisements targeting those traveling to Palin and McCain’s rally last Friday.

The quarterly fundraising cut-off is Wednesday, and the April 15 Federal Election Commission reports will provide a snapshot of how close this race could be.

There’s no doubt that Hayworth is popular with activists, but he’s not nearly as well-known as McCain. For instance, even as the former talk-radio host made his way around the picnic tables in Carefree, some newly involved Tea Party activists failed to recognize him.

“I don’t even know the guy,” said Bob Mandell, a semi-retired engineer who’s voting in his first primary after relocating to Phoenix from New York state two years ago. “I’m not going to vote for this guy J.D. without knowing more about him.”

As Hayworth builds up his name recognition, he has to avoid handing McCain the ammunition to blast him. He’s already put his foot in his mouth on same-sex marriage, telling a Florida radio station that the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that legalized it could lead to a man being able to marry a horse. The McCain camp promptly alerted reporters to the gaffe.

Hayworth has also strayed perilously close to condoning the conspiracy theory that President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe true commander in tweet Meghan Markle's pre-royal 'finishing lessons' and an etiquette of equality Hannity on Acosta claim he was tough on Obama: 'Only thing missing were the pom-poms' MORE wasn’t born in the United States. Asked about the so-called “birther” theory by a voter on Saturday in Carefree, Hayworth made the comparison to President Chester A. Arthur, whom some believe was born in Canada. There may continue to be historical debate, Hayworth said, before adding: “It’s been validated to my satisfaction. What we’ve got to do is concentrate on stopping the agenda.”

As the sun set on the barbecue and many started heading for their cars, Hayworth lingered near a mesquite wood campfire with his wife, Mary, and son, John. “The support is growing daily,” he said. “Momentum’s with us.”