John McCain to face formidable foe in Arizona GOP primary

Former Congressman J.D. Hayworth is challenging Sen. John McCain in Arizona's GOP primary – and some state Republicans are calling the contest 'payback' for McCain's poor showing in the 2008 presidential race and his maverick voting record.

By , Staff writer

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    Former Republican congressman J.D. Hayworth shakes hands with supporters as he kicks off his campaign to challenge Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain at a campaign rally Monday, in Phoenix.
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John McCain’s fight to keep his US Senate seat for a fifth term is shaping up to become what some Arizona Republicans are calling a "blood feud” between two factions of their party.

J.D. Hayworth, a former congressman and a conservative radio host, on Monday announced he would run against Senator McCain in the Republican primary in August. Although McCain faces another GOP challenger – businessman Jim Deakin – Mr. Hayworth is considered McCain’s most potent threat. He is the best known of McCain's opponents and is best positioned to tap into voter anger that has simmered during the 15 months since McCain lost the presidential race to Democrat Barack Obama, say local political analysts.

“For the diehards, it’s a long time coming. It’s payback,” says John Ellinwood, a writer for Gila Courier, a conservative website covering Arizona politics. “The perception among conservatives is that he did not fight hard enough” in 2008.

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Many in Arizona expect Hayworth to be the more personable candidate – comfortable at the podium as well as listening to voters on the street. McCain's image in his home state, by contrast, is that he is unfriendly and interacts with the local Republican base only during election cycles.

“McCain never comes to anything. This year he’s coming to everything. They find it an insult,” Mr. Ellinwood says, characterizing the contest ahead as a "blood feud."

Hayworth plans to appeal to Republican voters who wonder about McCain’s credentials as a conservative. He is likely to cite McCain’s previous support of granting a path to citizenship (critics call it amnesty) to illegal immigrants. In 2007, McCain co-authored a bill with Sen. Edward Kennedy, the late "liberal lion" of the Senate, that never advanced to a vote but that is still considered a starting point for future immigration-reform legislation.

Arizona voters have not favored extending rights or benefits to illegal immigrants. In 2004 voters approved Proposition 200, which requires residents to provide proof of citizenship to receive public benefits in the state. McCain had campaigned against the initiative.

The chief strike against Hayworth is that he lost a 2006 re-election bid for his House seat after a remapping of his congressional district. This contrasts with McCain, who since joining the Senate in 1986 has never faced an opponent, in the primary or the general election, formidable enough to challenge his fundraising prowess or name recognition. In his last Senate election in 2004, McCain won 77 percent of the vote in the general election and ran unopposed in the Republican primary, according to "The Almanac of American Politics."

McCain has "never had a quality challenger. He’s done so well and his story is so compelling that he’s scared them off,” says Patrick Kenney, director of the school of politics and global studies at Arizona State University in Tempe.

The share of the Arizona Republican Party that is upset with McCain is not big enough to ensure a Hayworth victory, says Mr. Kenney. Although McCain's votes on “a handful of issues” have angered some within his party (namely, his opposition to President Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 or his drafting of the McCain-Feingold bill on campaign-finance reform), “the rest of the time he’s a strong conservative vote in the Senate,” Kenney says.

In addition to his big campaign war chest of at least $27 million, McCain also has in his arsenal access to his party’s up-and-coming stars. He has secured promises by several A-list Republicans to campaign for him in coming months, among them his former vice presidential running mate Sarah Palin and Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts. McCain also plans to enlist the help of some of the Republican old guard: former Republican House leader Dick Armey and Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform.

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