Using the political calculus of today, Sen. John McCain should be facing the political fight of his life.
Instead, the four-term incumbent holds a significant lead over his main opponent and appears to be breezing toward a big win in Arizona's Aug. 24 Republican primary.
The Arizona Republic newspaper recently summed up the trend, headlining that McCain held a “devastating” lead over his challenger, former GOP Rep. J.D. Hayworth. A July Rocky Mountain poll by the Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center showed McCain with a whopping 64 percent of the vote, compared with 19 percent for Hayworth.
At first, pundits thought the war hero and Arizona Republican would face a tough challenge from Hayworth, who became a Phoenix radio talk show host after losing his congressional seat in November 2006.
But McCain is one of the few Washington Republicans riding high on the tea party wave, and he probably will not suffer the fate of Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, who was ousted by grass-roots conservatives at the state's GOP convention in May.
According to McCain's supporters, he was a “tea partyer” long before the term became fashionable, having acted as a fiscal and deficit hawk in the Capitol for decades. For example, McCain is one of a mere handful of senators who has eschewed political-pork earmarks.
He also earned praise for being one of President Barack Obama’s fiercest critics from the earliest days of the new administration.
"I am proud of the leadership position I have taken fighting this administration," McCain said during a recent debate in Phoenix.
During his more than two decades in the Senate, McCain has not been a hard-line partisan. So his criticisms of Obama’s uncompromising ways are striking a nerve.
In a July New York magazine article, McCain expressed his frustration with Obama, saying: “This administration has decided to govern from the far left without any consultations or negotiations or any compromises to be made with the other party! You know how many times I’ve been asked to go over to the White House to negotiate on any issue? Zero. Zero."
During his first debate with Hayworth on July 16, McCain went on to recite a litany of ways he's fought to defeat the "change" agenda that carried Obama to victory two years ago. Hayworth had a sharp response.
"John, if you had told the truth about Barack Obama the way you're spreading falsehoods about me," he quipped, "you might be president of the United States right now."
But Hayworth’s invective against McCain hasn’t been gaining traction with Republican voters.
Hayworth has tried to present himself as the tea party candidate. But he experienced a serious setback in March, when Arizona's four largest grass-roots organizations — the Tucson Tea Party, the Greater Phoenix Tea Party, the Flagstaff Tea Party, and the Mohave County Tea Party — issued a joint statement that they would not be making any endorsement.
Meanwhile, Sarah Palin, one of the tea party’s de facto leaders, strongly endorsed McCain. In a joint campaign event in March, Palin declared the tea party phenomenon "a beautiful grass-roots movement that is putting government back on the side of the people . . . Everybody here today supporting John McCain, we're all part of that tea party movement."
While conservatives have had some differences with McCain through the years, Hayworth also has a Washington record after 12 years in Congress. Some tea party activists say Hayward does not completely reflect the small-government emphasis that they are pushing.
"The tea party is a nonpartisan, grass-roots movement that stands for limited government, free markets, and fiscal responsibility," said Robert Mayer of the Tucson Tea Party.
Everett Wilkinson, a member of the national leadership council of Tea Party Patriots, tells Newsmax that his organization has chosen not to endorse candidates in Arizona or elsewhere.
"We think it's in the best interest of our country and our movement to allow activists and local groups to endorse," he says. "We're a bottom up rather than a top-down organization. As a nonprofit, there are certain legal hurdles that we have to overcome to endorse candidates, and we've chosen at this time not to deal with those."
Hayworth claims endorsements from about a half-dozen tea party organizations. A third candidate for the nomination, Navy veteran and conservative Jim Deakin, is considered a long shot. Deakin has received limited tea party support.
The polls seem to show the momentum is with McCain. In addition to the Rocky Mountain poll, a June Rasmussen Reports survey showed McCain enjoying a commanding lead of 47 percent to 36 percent.
That's impressive considering that Arizona's most controversial issue this year is immigration. In April, the Arizona Legislature passed SB 1070, requiring law officers in the state to determine a citizen's residency after a "lawful contact" or arrest, when a reasonable suspicion exists that the person is
illegal. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer quickly signed the measure into law, and the Obama administration has filed a lawsuit on the grounds the law pre-empts the federal prerogative to protect the borders and control immigration.
Hayworth often notes that McCain strongly backed a moderate immigration compromise as recently as 2006. But McCain acknowledged almost two years ago that his support for the immigration bill was a mistake. He said that he should have demanded that a border security program be implemented first and has made that a legislative priority.
McCain also strongly embraced SB 1070, and has won Brewer's endorsement.
"We have to address the issue of the people who are here illegally. No amnesty,” McCain declared on the “Jon Justice Show,” a popular radio program for conservatives in Tucson. “Many of them need to be sent back.”
McCain has likened himself to Theodore Roosevelt, a popular Republican who occasionally broke with his party on some issues but was revered for his staunch Americanism. McCain likes the populist and “straight talk” tack, one that seems to be working this year.
Interestingly, McCain garnered support from another plain-spoken celebrity: Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi of MTV's "Jersey Shore" show.
Polizzi recently told McCain's daughter Meghan she voted for him in 2008 because "he was really cute and I liked when he did his speeches."
That prompted McCain to quip on Fox News: "'Vote for me, I'm cute.' I think the days are long past when I could use that as a slogan."
And this year it won’t help. Voters are looking for fighters who won’t accept the establishment line. McCain appears to fit the bill.
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