McCain's quick-draw image suits Arizona

Playing to his state's Wild West streak, the senator is expected to win today's primary handily, polls show.

On a sunny street corner where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday once steeled themselves for the shootout at the OK Corral, three retirees turn their thoughts to a more modern maverick: John McCain, the Arizona senator who wants to be president.

Richard Rhoades likes Senator McCain's fiery temper. Bob Kennedy admires his perseverance as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Ben Harrison likes McCain's penchant for speaking his mind. All three plan to vote for McCain during the Arizona Republican primary today.

"He's the only honest one they got," says Mr. Harrison, who appears to speak pretty freely himself. "I don't like to be lied to. I like to know what's going on."

Fresh from a trouncing in South Carolina at the hands of Gov. George W. Bush, John McCain is in the unfamiliar position of being the clear favorite in today's Arizona Republican primary. Yet, in some ways, the story line is no different than it's been for him throughout this primary season - if he wins, he'll have to do it without the support of many state Republicans, including Gov. Jane Hull.

In this state, however, where the Wild West, shoot-from-the-hip style is a formula for success, McCain's often prickly relationship with his own party only adds to his reputation for bucking authority. It's helped him win reelection to the US Senate three times, and it may prove decisive against Mr. Bush's formidable party machine.

"He's the rugged individualist on a horse chasing the bad guys," says David Berman, a political scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe. "There's a populist streak here that he appeals to. We don't like the big-money establishment anointing candidates."

New residents, new state

Like many states in the Sun Belt, Arizona has undergone substantial demographic changes in the past decade, with thousands of Californians and others coming to Phoenix to take part in the booming high-tech economy.

Today, Arizona is primarily an urban state, with 80 percent of the population living within an hour of Phoenix, and 60 percent living in Phoenix itself. Many of these newcomers hold different political leanings than traditional Arizonans. As a result, candidates here can no longer simply play a conservative, straight-line party message.

In this light, McCain's penchant for bucking his party on social-conservative issues is not merely an expression of Barry Goldwater-style individual principle - it's also politically expedient.

That said, the latest polls show that Arizonans give their hometown senator a 22-point margin over the once-inevitable Bush. According to a poll conducted last week by Arizona State, McCain leads Bush by 51 to 29 percent. A separate poll, conducted last month by the Rocky Mountain Poll group, found a much closer race with McCain leading 42 to 34 percent. As recently as July, Bush led McCain 37 to 21 percent.

"What the polls tell us is that the endorsement of politicians doesn't amount to much," says Earl De Berge, research director of the Rocky Mountain Poll in Phoenix.

While a win in Arizona should keep McCain's campaign running for weeks, his loss in South Carolina and an expected close race in Michigan underline a larger point: If McCain doesn't start winning some big states, and soon, he could just be yet another whetstone who sharpened Bush.

What's remarkable about McCain's projected margin of support in Arizona is that he has spent precious little time and money building it.

"Not only is McCain going to win in Arizona, but he's going to win without having to do much," says Ken Goldstein, a pollster at Arizona State University.

Republican Sen. John Kyl, the chair of McCain's campaign here, says voters in his state have great respect for Bush, but they will support McCain because "he has the leadership skills and the skills to beat Al Gore."

"The rank-and-file voter here knows John McCain, and they're not going to vote for someone else they don't know as well," says Senator Kyl.

But some of McCain's strongest critics are also people who know him well. Governor Hull, for instance, may support Bush because she likes his tax-cut proposals and his approach to immigration issues. Or she may hold a grudge against McCain for supporting young US Rep. Matt Salmon in a bid to replace her. Former Attorney General Grant Woods, a onetime McCain protg, is also supporting Bush after a rather bitter falling-out with McCain.

"McCain ... makes direct contact with the voter, and he's a great campaigner, but he's stepped on an awful lot of toes," says Dr. Berman.

Bush backers

Some prominent Bush supporters make it clear they have nothing but respect for McCain. They just think Bush is the better Republican candidate.

"I don't think that Senator McCain has even talked about crime prevention," says Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County. "Bush has done something about it, as chief executive of his state. I want a guy who's a crime fighter, and he's the only one."

In Tombstone, even Arizona's favorite son will have his work cut out for him in persuading some voters to support him. Gail Bell, a stagecoach driver, is a firm backer of Vice President Al Gore. "Everything's been going right for the last few years," she says. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Across the street, Virgil Wheeland, a prize-winning gunfighter with a grizzled demeanor, is also skeptical of McCain, but for different reasons. "I sometimes think he's a little more liberal than he should be," says Mr. Wheeland, fingering his Colt 45 in its holster and handing out invitations to a gunfight - at high noon, of course. The chief issue for Wheeland? "The right to carry [arms]."

But retiree Mr. Rhoades says he'll vote for McCain for the very quality that so many Arizona politicians despise: his temper.

"I get tickled when I hear them say he's got a temper," says Rhoades, handing out a business card that reads "retired, married, happy." "Hey, I've got a temper too. I'd be proud for him to be a president of mine."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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