McCain in tough spot with Trump

John McCainJohn Sidney McCainAmerica's newest comedy troupe: House GOP Michelle Malkin knocks Cokie Roberts shortly after her death: 'One of the first guilty culprits of fake news' Arizona Democratic Party will hold vote to censure Sinema MORE is in a precarious spot in what he’s called his toughest reelection bid to date. And he can thank Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE.

The Republican senator from Arizona on Monday ripped into Trump in a nearly 700-word, emotionally charged rebuke of the GOP presidential candidate’s attack on Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Muslim parents of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq.

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“In the end, I am morally bound to speak only to the things that command my allegiance, and to which I have dedicated my life’s work: the Republican Party, and more importantly, the United States of America,” McCain said in his statement.

“It is time for Donald Trump to set the example for our country and the future of the Republican Party. While our Party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.”

It’s just the latest break between Trump and McCain, who must defeat a Republican primary challenger just to get to the general election, where polls suggest he’ll face a tight race, probably against Rep. Ann KirkpatrickAnn KirkpatrickSwing-seat Democrats oppose impeachment, handing Pelosi leverage McSally gets new primary challenger Two Democrats vow to press forward on Trump impeachment MORE (D-Ariz.).

Arizona has been a safe state for Republican presidential candidates, but polls show Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMissing piece to the Ukraine puzzle: State Department's overture to Rudy Giuliani On The Money: Trump downplays urgency of China trade talks | Chinese negotiators cut US trip short in new setback | Trump sanctions Iran's national bank | Survey finds Pennsylvania, Wisconsin lost the most factory jobs in past year Meghan McCain, Ana Navarro get heated over whistleblower debate MORE within striking distance of Trump, whose opposition to illegal immigration boosts him with some Arizonans but could be a hindrance with a rising number of Hispanic voters.

That’s bad news for McCain, who is seeking a sixth term in what looks to be a tough election year environment for Republicans.

McCain has endorsed Trump, but like several other vulnerable GOP senators, he's also repeatedly sought to distance himself from a series of controversial remarks by the GOP nominee.

“It's the challenge everyone knew we would face — being put in the constant position of having to respond to false, insensitive or reckless statements — sometimes all three wrapped in one,” said one top GOP campaign operative who openly speculated whether the senator would revoke his endorsement of Trump.

“We can all hope that this one is the last one, but deep down none of us believe that,” the source said. “The only safe bet is a clean break, and that option looks more attractive each day.”

McCain’s fellow Arizona senator, Republican Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake donates to Democratic sheriff being challenged by Arpaio in Arizona The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says US-China trade talks to resume, hails potential trade with Japan, UK Joe Arpaio to run for Maricopa County sheriff in 2020  MORE, hasn’t endorsed Trump. At a meeting of Senate Republicans last month, Trump criticized Flake, who had to remind the nominee that he wasn’t up for reelection this year.

On Monday, Flake didn’t rule out an endorsement of Trump, but said the businessman would have to move toward him on policy, including immigration.

Because McCain is up for reelection, he’s in a much tougher spot.

Early voting in the GOP primary in Arizona starts in two days, and McCain’s opponent, former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R), is already hitting the incumbent for his comments about Trump.

“The Khan controversy is a cynical political stunt cooked up by the Clinton Establishment, and, sadly, John McCain has fallen right into it,” she said on Monday. “McCain's statement today makes clear that he really wants Hillary Clinton in the White House, and his tepid ‘support’ for Trump is only disingenuous pandering.”

That sentiment was echoed by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who in an interview with The Washington Post said McCain would have kept “his mouth shut” if he weren’t running for reelection.

The Arizona GOP primary is on Aug. 30.

McCain, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee just eight years ago, has sometimes come under criticism from grassroots conservatives, particularly over immigration.

When he last ran for reelection, in 2010, he tacked hard to the right on immigration, visiting a wall on the border in one memorable ad.

Since then, however, he worked to forge a compromise on immigration reform in the Senate in 2013.

In 2016, with Trump’s emphasis on immigration and toxic polling numbers with Hispanics, the path McCain is seeking to walk is even more difficult. 

In the general election, Democrats believe the rising Latino population and divisive GOP nominee might put Arizona in play.

McCain’s likely Democratic rival in the general election, Kirkpatrick, hit him from the other side of the political spectrum on Monday for not retracting his support for Trump.

“John McCain's continued support for Donald Trump proves the Republican nominee can say or do anything, and McCain will still support him,” Kirkpatrick said. “By maintaining his endorsement of Trump, McCain is proving he no longer puts 'country first' and put politics ahead of standing on principle for himself or others.”

McCain’s relationship with Trump has long been strained.

Earlier in the cycle, Trump denigrated McCain’s war service, saying he prefers soldiers who don’t get captured. McCain spent nearly six years in a Vietnamese prison camp where he endured torture and refused early release.

McCain’s best friend and top ally on Capitol Hill, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate Judiciary Committee requests consultation with admin on refugee admissions Trump reignites court fight with Ninth Circuit pick Trump judicial picks face rare GOP opposition MORE (R-S.C.), has been one of Trump’s fiercest critics and says he won’t be supporting the GOP nominee.

Some of McCain’s former allies are frustrated by his ongoing support for the GOP nominee.

Chris Herstam, who served as chief of staff to former Republican Gov. Fife Symington, ripped McCain for not cutting the cord with Trump.

“I hope his next step is to withdraw his support but I doubt we’ll see that,” Herstam told The Hill. “It’s clear that winning a contested GOP primary in Arizona is his priority as opposed to demonstrating integrity. This is raw politics and it’s pathetic to see someone try to protect their own posterior over standing up to a racist egomaniac. That’s not what a maverick does.”

Herstam said he donated to McCain’s reelection campaign last year before leaving the Republican Party over Trump. He has since donated to Kirkpatrick.

Still, McCain’s Republican allies believe the controversy is being overblown.

McCain skipped the GOP convention to campaign at home and has been barnstorming the state.

State GOP lawmaker T.J. Shope says he campaigned with McCain for seven hours last week and not one person asked about Trump.

“Obviously Democrats are working to hang Trump around him as an albatross but that’s a double-edged sword because Hillary Clinton is just as terribly unpopular here,” Shope said. “John McCain is always running against headwinds around election time. He’s an institution here and he’s always endured.”