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Associated Press/Photo by Ross D. Franklin

Maverick enough?

Elections | McCain's reputation for crossing party lines is costing him with the home base

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," April 24, 2010

TUCSON-Among lawmakers threatened with losing their seats this November because of federal expansions enacted under President Barack Obama is the man who was his presidential challenger, Sen. John McCain.

Arizona's August primary was considered a lock for the elder statesman just months ago. But his record of reaching across the aisle on legislation ranging from immigration to climate change has left some Republican voters wondering whether they can depend on him to fight Democrats on key issues. The title McCain once prized as an asset, "maverick," has left the door open for a challenge from former U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth.

A few years ago Hayworth dismissed the idea of running against the 23-year incumbent, telling The Weekly Standard that McCain's polling numbers were simply too strong. Then Hayworth lost his House seat in 2006 in a tide of change that swept many Republicans out of office. He turned to talk radio, and now claims conditions are ripe for defeating what he calls McCain's false brand of conservatism.

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"Midterm elections are often a referendum on the performance of the chief executive," said Hayworth, arguing that McCain is a moderate who has proved he cannot be counted on to hold back the Obama agenda. In particular, he is hammering McCain for his vote on the TARP bailouts, his support for cap-and-trade, and his sponsorship of the 2005 McCain-Kennedy bill Hayworth claims provided amnesty for illegal immigrants. He has promised that if Arizona voters send him to the U.S. Senate, he will, in contrast to McCain, be a "consistent conservative voice."

This isn't the first time McCain has faced in-party opposition, but in the past it gained no traction; McCain hasn't faced a serious state challenge since his first congressional race in 1982. Now that's changed-enough so that voter ire directed at Obama could be spilling over onto the man who once opposed him. In January Rasmussen polling had Hayworth trailing by 22 points, by mid-March the gap narrowed to 7 points-48 percent McCain, 41 percent Hayworth.

To boost his conservative bona fides, McCain has turned to the woman who proved to be the most polarizing figure of the presidential race. More than 5,000 people gathered at Tucson's Pima County Fairgrounds on March 26 to see former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin join her former running mate in their first public appearance since 2008. As Palin took the stage, the crowd included not only Tea Party activists, run-of-the-mill Republicans, and curious Tucsonans, but also the national media. Fox News Channel, CNN, and C-Span offered live broadcasts of her speech.

"I couldn't wait to get the McCain-Palin team back together again," Palin crowed to chants of "Sarah, Sarah." She described McCain as a man of principle and of the people, urging Arizona voters to send him back to Washington to continue his fight against reckless spending and the Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda.

In addition to bringing Palin on the campaign trail, McCain also has departed from stances once considered a departure from the GOP: He now says he was misled by the administration on the Wall Street bailouts. He also has dropped his support for carbon-­emissions legislation.

At the Tucson rally, McCain spoke out harshly against "Obamacare," saying it marks the first time in American history that a major piece of legislation has passed over the overwhelming objection of the American people. He called it "sleazy Chicago-style sausage-making."

Yet while the Tea Party moniker was evoked many times at the event, overall it is Tea Parties-or at least many of their members-driving the opposition against McCain. Said Tucson Tea Party leader, Trent Humphries, "I haven't polled our people and we're certainly not all of one mind on it, but I would guess that the majority right now support Hayworth." At a Tea Party event featuring Palin in Searchlight, Nev., attendees carried signs reading, "No more RINOs [Republicans in Name Only]-Retire McCain" and "Reid-McCain: Two sides of the same damn coin. Vote them out."

Palin may be stumping hard for her former running mate, but local political watchers doubt whether she is changing the minds of the Tea Partiers who applaud her. Jon Justice, the most popular talk radio host in southern Arizona, has interviewed McCain and Hayworth numerous times and speculates that many of the Tucson crowd were more interested in seeing Palin than supporting McCain: "I don't think she's swaying people's opinions. The very vocal Tea Party people that call my show like her because they want fresh faces in Washington. They want the old guard out."

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