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As John McCain fights for reelection, the Trump problem cuts two ways — both against him

John McCain came to talk about honor and duty. The setting was an American Legion post, where Arizona's senior senator unfurled an army’s worth of endorsements from military brass supporting his November reelection bid.

A group of veterans sat at a small cluster of tables pushed together in the nearly empty room before cameras trained on the made-for-TV event.

But all reporters cared about was Donald Trump. What did McCain think of his latest campaign shake-up? “Do you have a question about veterans?” McCain demanded. 

What did he think about veterans denouncing Trump? About Trump insulting the family of a soldier killed in Iraq? About the military brass who called Trump unfit to serve as commander in chief? 

His face reddening, his anger rising with the color in his cheeks, McCain responded through gritted teeth. “I'm running my campaign for the United States Senate," he said. Anything to do with Trump and who is or isn't supporting the Republican presidential nominee, he insisted, had nothing to do with his race.

But it’s hardly that simple.

Just shy of his 80th birthday, seeking his sixth Senate term, McCain is waging the most difficult and unhappy reelection fight of his long and storied career.

The main reason is Trump — a man he loathes — who cut to McCain’s core by mocking his capture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam but whom the senator dare not publicly renounce, stuck as he is between his Democratic opponent and a Republican primary foe who strongly embraces the Manhattan businessman.

Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick has seized on McCain’s grudging support for Trump — or “the nominee of the party,” in language he uses to distance himself — to suggest the senator is no longer the country-first, party-be-damned maverick Arizona voters dispatched to Washington in repeated landslides.

“People can’t believe he didn’t stand up for himself when Donald Trump insulted him,” said the three-term congresswoman from northern Arizona, whose campaign against McCain affects a tone more of sorrow than anger. “His actions show that he’s not the principled leader he used to be.”

Kelli Ward says much the same thing, for entirely different reasons.

“The tepid support that John McCain is putting forward for Donald Trump is just pandering to voters, hoping that in the primary he’s going to be able to pull the wool over their eyes again in order to get back to Washington,” said Ward, who is challenging McCain for the GOP Senate nomination.

“He expected everybody to come out full force for him when he was the [Republican presidential] nominee in 2008 … and he’s not willing to do that for Donald Trump.”

McCain is considered a heavy favorite in Tuesday’s primary, though an upset is not out of the question.

After years of flouting party orthodoxy on issues such as campaign finance, climate change and immigration, his relationship with much of Arizona’s Republican base is one of mutual contempt; any living, breathing opponent is almost certain to get at least 30% support.

Ward, a 47-year-old emergency room physician and former state lawmaker from Lake Havasu City, is an unabashed acolyte of Trump, who barely missed sweeping all 15 counties in Arizona’s presidential primary.

She targets illegal immigration — “I am ready to mix the mortar to fix the border.” She sounds the same populist notes as Trump — “Everybody deserves a friend in Washington, not just the rich, not just the powerful.” She even employs some of the same inflammatory rhetoric.

Speaking to Republican precinct captains in Mesa, outside Phoenix, she accused McCain of turning his staff and young volunteers “into basically campaign terrorists” who have harassed and intimidated her supporters, almost knocking her mother down at one stop.

“They’re willing to say or do, lie, cheat, anything that they need to try to get their guy to win,” Ward said.

McCain and his allies have countered by portraying Ward as an unhinged conspiracy monger and political lightweight — though they recently grew concerned enough to switch a flight of anti-Kirkpatrick TV ads to a message targeting his primary opponent.

Kirkpatrick, a veteran of several tough House races, is the most credible Democratic opponent McCain has ever faced.

Her call for new blood in the Senate might be more resonant from a candidate who wasn’t already 66 years old. But her Arizona pedigree is impeccable and her relative moderation makes it harder to portray Kirkpatrick, per the usual campaign playbook, as the handmaiden of Left Coast liberals like Nancy Pelosi.

Born and raised on the White Mountain Indian reservation, where her father owned a general store, Kirkpatrick grew up speaking Apache and is fluent in Navajo. A lawyer, who worked for a time prosecuting drug cases, she represents a district that sprawls from the northern tip of Arizona to the Tucson suburbs hundreds of miles south; the area is larger than the state of Pennsylvania, making Kirkpatrick at least fleetingly familiar to voters throughout the state.

But it is Trump who gives Kirkpatrick her best shot in November.

His insulting comments are expected to spur Democratic turnout among the state’s large and growing Latino population; so, too, is the campaign to unseat Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a Trump ally who faces possible criminal charges for his racially tinged approach to law enforcement.

“There’s nothing like hatred to motivate people to vote,” said Chuck Coughlin, a veteran GOP strategist who is not involved in the Senate primary.

The greater danger to McCain, though, is a defection of white voters, who still make up the vast majority of the electorate, or a depressed Republican turnout owing to the presence of Trump atop the GOP ticket.

Arizona voters tend to be faithful in the extreme. In the 104 years since the state joined the union, just 11 individuals have been elected to the U.S. Senate. The last time an incumbent lost here was in 1952. The only time an Arizona senator was defeated in a primary was in 1940.

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McCain, first elected to Congress as a House member in 1982, is counting on voter loyalty along with his longevity and brand-name familiarity — those very things, paradoxically, that his opponents target — to distinguish himself from Trump and his antic campaign. He has also spoken out against his party’s nominee, selectively.

Supporters cited McCain’s response this month when Trump criticized the parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim American soldier killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq. “While our party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us,” McCain said in written statement. “I cannot say how deeply I disagree.”

Ward pounced immediately, saying the senator had blundered into a political trap laid by Hillary Clinton supporters; Kirkpatrick said McCain’s condemnation hadn’t gone far enough.

Obviously, there was no pleasing both sides. But the separation from Trump is an approach, strategists suggested, the senator will pursue with increased frequency — though not quite yet.

Asked about Khan during his stop at the American Legion hall, McCain referred to his earlier statement and declined to elaborate, snapping at a reporter who followed him toward the exit and a getaway car idling in the blast-furnace heat.

“I don’t have anything more to tell you,” he growled. “I’ve answered all the questions I want to answer.”

mark.barabak@latimes.com

Twitter: For more political news and analysis follow me @markzbarabak

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