John McCain fighting for his political life in the Arizona desert - Telegraph
John McCain fighting for his political life in the Arizona desert
John McCain, the senator and former presidential candidate, is fighting for his political life in Arizona after a challenge by "JD" Hayworth, a talk radio host.
By Alex Spillius in Phoenix, Arizona
Published: 8:00AM BST 25 Apr 2010
Senator John McCain addresses the crowd during a campaign rally in Mesa, Arizona Photo: AP
Just 18 months ago John McCain was narrowly leading Barack Obama in the opinion polls and stood every chance of becoming the leader of the free world.
Then the banking collapse and the greatest recession for 70 years put paid to his hopes of reaching the White House, and eight weeks later his bid on the national stage was confined to history.
Now the veteran senator is instead fighting for his political life in the desert heat of his home turf of Arizona – against a right-wing former talk-radio host who is attempting to seize the Republican nomination for this autumn's election.
Forced to scrabble for votes across the state at fund-raisers, town hall meetings and luncheon appearances with all the intensity of a first-time candidate, supporters of the 73-year-old Sen McCain admit that he faces an unexpectedly serious challenge for the Senate seat he has held for 24 years.
He has even had to ask Sarah Palin, whom he catapulted to fame as his vice-presidential nominee but whom some advisers came to despise, to appear alongside him to beef up his support in the Republican primary.
"There's no doubt it's a challenging race," said Wes Gullett, a long time friend of Sen McCain and deputy manager of his failed 2000 bid for the Republican presidential nomination. "John clearly thinks so because he is working his ass off."
Bruce Merrill, the state's pre-eminent pollster and political analyst at Arizona State University, said: "John is taking this race very seriously indeed. It wouldn't be shocking if it was very close, or if he even lost."
On Friday Sen McCain was in Phoenix, the state capital, to drum up support from the city's chamber of commerce. "I love campaigning, I love a good fight and we're having a great time," he told The Sunday Telegraph.
But like other moderate Republicans facing re-election in November's midterm polls, he is under attack from the Right of the party that has rediscovered its voice in opposition to President Obama's health care reform and lavish spending to prop up the economy.
In Arizona, that challenge has come in the colourful form of John "JD" Hayworth, a former Republican congressman and broadcaster with broad shoulders, excellent vocal projection and Trump-like hair.
"It's not personal, but four terms in the Senate is a long time. People are saying let someone new get this done," Mr Hayworth told The Sunday Telegraph.
Embracing the Tea Party values of low tax and small government, he is riding a wave of anti-Washington sentiment that threatens long-serving politicians across the country. The recession, which in the Phoenix area has pushed 50 per cent of homes into negative equity, has strengthened the wind at his back.
Portraying himself as the only "consistent conservative" in the race, Mr Hayworth is anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage and sceptical about man-made climate change.
He routinely attacks Sen McCain on immigration, a sensitive issue in a state bordering Mexico. Violence from the criminal gangs behind human trafficking and drug running have spilt across the frontier while large areas of Phoenix have become Spanish-speaking ghettoes.
Sen McCain, says Mr Hayworth, has stopped listening to his base. "Woe to any constituent who stood up to talk about border security. They would receive a lecture from John. John has basically decided that what John thinks is the way it ought to be.
"Washington sees immigration as a policy problem. It's not. It's an invasion, a national security threat and a personal security threat to people living on the border and inland."
His message is well received by the well-heeled members of the Palo Verde Republican Women's Club, whom he addressed on Thursday at a lunch.
Demonstrating rhetorical talents learnt in his years as a television sports presenter, Mr Hayworth added scholarly flourishes to his performance, quoting Disraeli and impersonating both Winston and Clementine Churchill.
Afterwards, ladies nearly half his 6'5" frame and quite a bit more than his 51 years queued up to squeeze his hand and offer support.
"It's such a big year because the whole fabric of our society is being challenged," said Joyce Worrall, over salad, chicken and walnut cake. "It's like restaurants in London – you just don't hear English any more. The kids don't speak English. There used to be assimilation but it's not happening now."
To such voters, McCain's greatest crime was coauthoring an immigration reform bill in 2007 with the late and very liberal Democrat Edward Kennedy. Shot down in flames of indignation, critics said it offered 12 million illegal immigrants what amounted to an amnesty.
Such bipartisanship won McCain plaudits nationally and defined his Senate career, but in Arizona it has won him disdain from hard-core party activists, the 30 per cent of local Republicans who see the senator as a liberal in disguise, or a "Rino" – a Republican In Name Only.
Unfortunately for him, they are the voters most likely to take part in primary elections, which select a party's candidate.
The McCain campaign's internal polling has him 15 to 20 percentage points ahead, but other polls have put the gap at only eight to 10 for the vote in August – a dangerously slim margin.
"JD does very well with people that tend to vote in a primary, so this will be much closer than people think," said Mr Merrill.
To try and win back diehard conservatives, Sen McCain has undergone what his opponent calls a "campaign year conversion".
He has backed a draconian "stop and search" Arizonan law to clamp down on the state's estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants that was criticised by President Obama on Friday for undermining American values.
He now criticises the highly unpopular $700 billion Wall Street bail-out bill for which he voted – saying he was fooled by the Bush administration – and in another change says the Guantánamo Bay detention centre should stay open.
Brian Rogers, a spokesman for McCain 2010, responded: "He has a very consistent record, and was a fiscal conservative for a long time before it became fashionable. What is more, McCain has been a thorn in the side of the Obama administration on health care and the stimulus."
Mr Hayworth enjoys name recognition but carries baggage of his own from 12 years in Congress and in 2006 he lost a very safe seat to a Democrat. His booming style earned the sobriquet Foghorn Leghorn, after the large rooster in the Looney Tunes, and none of his former colleagues in Congress from Arizona have endorsed him.
"The only exception I take to my opponent is he claims he is a conservative," said Sen McCain, adding that Mr Hayworth, when in Congress, regularly voted for overindulgent government projects.
Sen McCain survived five years in a North Vietnamese prison and, more recently, two bruising national campaigns, and Wes Gullett is convinced his old warhorse of a friend still has the stomach for battle.
"He would rather not have this fight, but he has, and he has never backed down from a fight in his life. In fact, it gets him fired up," he said.