Desperation or evolution?

If you caught Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) babbling on Fox News last week about how illegal immigrants purposefully cause accidents on Arizona freeways, you might have recalled the McCain who championed immigration reform with President George W. Bush and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). The bitter opposition it fueled shut down the Senate switchboard. Though McCain agreed with critics then that the border must be sealed first, he argued “we need to come up with a humane, moral way to deal with those people who are here, most of whom are not going anywhere.”

Now, McCain is defending Arizona’s new immigration law that has set off a firestorm, garnering criticism from fellow Republicans, including his daughter.

That old, trademark, too-tight-shoes look has returned to his face. McCain doesn’t want to “endorse” Arizona’s tough new immigration law, which is, according to Meghan McCain, “essentially a license to pull someone over for being Hispanic.” McCain has called it “a good tool” and “a step forward.” His close friend Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said it might not hold up to a court challenge, and GOP heavyweights like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida GOP Senate candidate and conservative superstar Marco Rubio have come out against it.

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But none of that matters, because McCain’s primary opponent in his sixth race for Senate is former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), one of the loudest and proudest opponents of earned legalization out there.

It is exceptional that after running twice for president, McCain finds himself in the political fight of his life. But McCain’s independent streak never endeared him to the Arizona Republican Party, and he has watched his double-digit lead over Hayworth dwindle.

Hayworth, of course, has accused McCain of flip-flopping on immigration. And though McCain is the grown-up in the race, the more experienced public servant and the war hero, he is also aware that at least some of his opponent’s “Johnny-come-lately” charges will stick. On the Confederate flag in South Carolina, on the Rev. Jerry Falwell, on climate change, immigration — even the maverick label he once wore with pride but now rejects — McCain has a history of, well, evolving.

McCain once called out agents of intolerance, but with his “Country First” presidential campaign in the rearview mirror, McCain is scrambling for conservative credentials that can match Hayworth’s. For McCain to succeed, principles will be damned.

Last spring, though he had supported President Bill Clinton’s Supreme Court nominees, McCain found that Sonia Sotomayor did not share his belief in judicial restraint and voted against her confirmation. This winter he co-sponsored legislation to create a debt commission but blocked it when it came up for a vote. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who had endorsed McCain the primary, made it clear that a vote for the commission was tacit approval of tax increases the GOP expects Democrats to propose.

When the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission came down in January, McCain’s former campaign finance reform co-champion, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), said it gave corporate money breathtaking new influence in elections and vowed to fight it. McCain said only that he was “disappointed,” noting that the ruling kept the McCain-Feingold law’s ban on soft-money contributions intact.

It could be McCain is growing more conservative with age; most of us do. But he might be desperate to be a senator for six more years, and winning requires political contortions. After the primary election, one McCain will emerge — maverick or Minuteman.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.

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