For a senator who consistently gets 80 percent approval ratings from Arizonans, it seems strange, bizarre even, that John McCain would not be a shoo-in to win his home state in November's presidential election. Some in-state analysts say chances are fair, in fact, that Arizona will end up in the Democratic column.
A big part of the uncertainty may be that the Republican Party's presumptive nominee has not distanced himself enough from the Bush administration to satisfy the one-third of state voters who are independents. But Senator McCain has also seen his support erode among Arizona's avid Bush supporters and social conservatives, for not backing the president on issues dear to their hearts. Toss in the resources and clout of Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, who will be pulling hard for her party's nominee, and anything can happen.
"The simple conclusion for Arizona is that this could be a competitive state," says Earl de Berge, director of the Behavior Research Center, which conducts the Rocky Mountain Poll. "As presidential material, with him so closely aligned to the mainstream right-wing politics of the White House, he doesn't have the types of numbers we would expect to see."
The latest Rocky Mountain Poll, conducted before Democrats settled on Sen. Barack Obama as their candidate, shows McCain winning Arizona over the Illinois senator by 11 percentage points. But in the same poll released May 24, fewer than 4 in 10 Arizonans said they see McCain as the best candidate to deal with two top issues: exiting Iraq and reviving the US economy.
Rugged individualism and a "can-do" spirit are embedded in the DNA of the American Southwest, including Arizona – and they are characteristics that seem a match for McCain's own.
But the state, among the fastest growing in the US, has changed with the influx of newcomers who hold views that are not as grounded in the rock-ribbed conservatism of Arizona's Barry Goldwater days. That makes politics here less predictable than in the past: In 1996, Arizonans voted for Bill Clinton, the first time they'd chosen a Democrat for president since Harry Truman won here in 1948. They swung back to the Republican side in 2000 and 2004, but in 2006's congressional elections they handed two GOP seats to the Democrats.
Moreover, there's some residual disaffection for McCain within the Republican Party here, say political observers.
The religious right, in particular, doesn't like that he voted against President Bush's tax cuts, pressed hard for campaign-finance reform that they see as curtailing political free speech, and backed an immigration measure that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and a guest-worker program. Some say he's a "show horse" in the Senate, not a "workhorse," especially since his first presidential run, citing a low vote-casting record. (He's skipped almost 61 percent of floor votes in the current 110th Congress, a time when he's been on the campaign trail. In the previous three sessions, he missed on average 5.3 percent of floor votes, according to a Washington Post online database.) Others point to his temper and a stubborn streak.
"He's got a real problem with the social conservatives and die-hard Bush supporters," says David Berman, a senior research fellow with Arizona State University's Morrison Institute. "Contrary to his claims that he doesn't have a bad temper, he's blown up at quite a few people here. He doesn't tolerate fools easily."
"On the other hand," Dr. Berman adds, "he has so much appeal with moderate Republicans, Democrats, and even independents that he doesn't need that base for a statewide vote."
McCain's hard push for office
McCain is like a lot of people who live in Arizona: They were not born here but moved to the state for the climate, work, affordable homes, or Western values.
After his second marriage, to a well-connected heiress to a beer distributorship here, McCain in 1980 moved to Arizona and set out to win a seat in Congress. He and his wife, Cindy, purchased a house in Mesa in 1982, within the First Congressional District, where incumbent Rep. John Rhodes (R) was unexpectedly retiring.
McCain's first campaign, engineered by top Rhodes consultant Jay Smith, is legendary here. The novice politician boned up on Arizona issues – mainly water, mining, and native American rights – and took to the streets. For six hours a day, six days a week, McCain knocked on doors, introduced himself to thousands of people, and wore out three pairs of shoes in the process – maintaining a blistering pace even as the mercury soared above 100 degrees F. His father-in-law's company and connections, too, provided McCain an entree to the state's corporate and political leaders.
"He's quite simply the hardest-working candidate that I ever encountered in 35 years of being involved in political campaigns," says Mr. Smith, CEO of Smith & Harroff Inc., a political consulting firm in Alexandria, Va., who worked with McCain for a decade. "No one comes close to the energy level and enthusiasm that he displayed obviously in his first campaign, but [also] in all his subsequent campaigns.... He is just indefatigable."
During that first Republican primary, some rivals tried to tag McCain a carpetbagger and an opportunist. That not only didn't stick, but McCain turned it to his advantage. As Smith recounts it (and as detailed in Robert Timberg's book "The Nightingale's Song"), McCain fielded questions about those claims for weeks. But one night, apparently fed up, he responded, rather hotly.
"Listen pal, I spent 22 years in the Navy. My father was in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot.... I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi," referring to the 5-1/2 years he spent as a POW in the infamous prison in North Vietnam.
Smith says there was silence for a few moments, then thunderous applause.
McCain won the GOP primary, one of his closest races ever. The general election, as well as subsequent elections to the US Senate, was pretty much a walk in the park for the honored war hero.
Help during the Keating Five scandal
Most experts say his service to Arizona has been stellar, except for the so-called Keating Five scandal of the late 1980s. Five senators, including McCain, were investigated for meeting with regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, who was trying to save his ailing savings and loan. After hearings ended in 1991, McCain received the mildest rebuke of the five: "poor judgment."
McCain himself has said it's the worst thing that's happened to him, even worse than imprisonment in North Vietnam. Most experts say he survived it in part because he works well with the press and in part because the Arizona Republican Party stood behind him.
But that, now, is part of their disaffection with him, experts say.
"The religious right that is now so opposed to him think they saved his career by standing up for him [during the Keating Five scandal]," says Bruce Merrill, a political scientist and pollster at Arizona State University in Tempe. "They think he deserted them by moving to the center seven years ago when he ran for president, which you have to do to run. But that is behind some of the hard feelings those on the far right have."
The Arizona GOP is split in its support for McCain, say most experts, though they can't tell how big a faction is disaffected. A recall effort in the summer of 2001 by far-right Republicans had appeared to be gathering momentum, but was abruptly ended after the 9/11 attacks. This spring, in a straw poll for president at a state Republican Party convention, McCain received only about 5 percent of the vote. Moreover, he received just 47 percent of the vote – not high for a favorite son, these experts say – during the February presidential primary here.
But Dr. Merrill draws a distinction between GOP party regulars and generic Republican voters.
"Republican Party leaders have not been terribly supportive of [McCain]," Merrill says. "But the party, being made up of regular Republicans, like him, respect him, and give him very high marks."
Few in the party complain publicly about McCain, but Joe Arpaio, a popular Republican sheriff, tells of being on the receiving end of McCain's wrath.
A rent in the GOP tent
Sheriff Arpaio of Maricopa County, known for creating a "tent city" in the desert for inmates, clothing them in pink underwear, and feeding them cheap bologna sandwiches, says he first ran afoul of McCain during his 2000 presidential bid. McCain had sought his endorsement, and Arpaio says he replied that he'd probably give it. Then he didn't hear from McCain about a public appearance or announcement for more than a year. Meanwhile, George W. Bush visited the state and Arpaio's tent city, and asked for his endorsement. Arpaio complied.
"McCain found my phone number that night – he called my house but he didn't reach me," Arpaio recalls.
During Arpaio's next reelection campaign for sheriff, McCain endorsed Arpaio's opponent.
They didn't meet again until about four years ago at a baseball game in Phoenix, where Arpaio sat with Mr. Bush.
"McCain was surprised that I was there, next to the president, and he kind of turned away from me," Arpaio says. "He was a little cold."
Arpaio endorsed and served as co-chair of Mitt Romney's primary campaign here. He says he's willing to help McCain now – if McCain asks for his support.
Even if a significant share of GOP voters close ranks and come out to the polls for McCain in November, the bigger question is, what will registered Independents do? McCain has been able to tap into their support in the past, but experts note a great deal of support among them for Obama as well. In Mr. de Berge's latest poll, for example, Independent voters were split evenly between McCain and the Democrats.
"The battleground is going to be over the Independents," de Berge says. "When you look at their position on who can do a better job, they poll 2 to 1 on the side of Democrats…. They are a very fickle bunch of people, but now they lean toward 'throw the rascals out.' "