Arizona was his land of opportunity

Times Staff Writer

When John McCain arrived in the Valley of the Sun nearly three decades ago, he was weighed down with enough negatives to sink most budding politicians.

Some Arizonans dismissed him as a carpetbagger shopping for an available House seat -- and a future in Washington politics. Others were annoyed that he had left the wife who waited valiantly for his return from a Hanoi prison, and that he had then married a much younger bride. His political opponents derided his marriage into Arizona's Hensley beer distributor fortune as a "money-in-law" arrangement to boost his campaign coffers.

It was a daunting start in his quest to retool himself from Navy war hero to political sensation.

"I was viewed with resentment by some for my lack of an Arizona pedigree," he acknowledged in a recent speech in Prescott, Ariz., a stop on his current campaign -- this one as the presumed presidential nominee of the GOP. "And in truth, I did not know as much about the state as one of its representatives to Congress should know."

In the end, it didn't matter. When a House seat opened in 1982, McCain bested three others in the Republican primary and trounced the token Democratic opposition in the heavily conservative state.

He was reelected in 1984 and then moved up, winning four Senate campaigns in a row. Although a moderate in a traditionally conservative state, he transformed himself into one of Arizona's favorite sons.

But it was in that first run that McCain showed his political mettle.

His life perhaps half-done, his war heroics behind him, McCain had tasted the nectar of official Washington as the Navy's liaison to the Senate and was eager to forge his own way. In what many describe as typical McCain-style determination, he plunged right in.

Though new to politics and Arizona, McCain quickly assembled a circle of influential friends and wealthy backers. And he was not shy about running on his record as a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war.

Some people look back and realize that in the early 1980s, McCain already was trying to position himself for higher office. But in his political debut, McCain showed he could be impulsive and sharp-tempered -- traits that still haunt him politically.

"I was in my 40s and in a hurry," he said in his autobiography. To wait, he said, "I had neither the time nor the patience." While other aspiring politicians mapped out 10-year plans to capture a seat in Washington, McCain worried that to sit out even one election cycle would mean "my chances were diminishing by the day."

Colleagues recall how he ignored the searing desert heat -- and the risk of skin cancer -- as he campaigned, refusing to wear a hat or tote an umbrella to ward off the sun. His knuckles rapped on 15,000 or so doors that summer. "Let's go hit the bricks!" he liked to say.

It was by no means a solo effort.

His father-in-law put him on the payroll as a public relations man for the statewide beer distributorship, giving him the opportunity to meet business executives and gain access to fundraiser lists -- crucial for a political novice.

McCain also leaned on his Washington connections, old friends such as Sens. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and John G. Tower (R-Texas), his political mentor. All were important in securing endorsements for McCain.

Most fortuitous of all was the fact that the veteran Republican officeholder in the Phoenix area, Rep. John J. Rhodes, had decided to retire -- leaving the 1st Congressional District wide open.

McCain and his wife wasted no time house-shopping in the district. The day Rhodes announced he was bowing out, McCain listened to the news conference with a phone at one ear while talking to his strategist, Jay Smith, on another phone. Then Smith could hear McCain talking to someone else. It was McCain's wife, Cindy. "Did you buy it? Did you get it? Did you find it?" Then there were whoops of joy as McCain told Smith they had just gotten a house in the 1st District.

"We went into serious let's-make-it-happen mode," Smith said. "I was enthusiastic and confident in my abilities and in his to see a way to victory. But I knew he would have to work harder than the others."

For McCain in Arizona, everything was new. He had been born and raised in a military family, his father and grandfather former admirals, and he was a celebrated pilot shot down over North Vietnam. Politics would be an entirely different adventure.

In the sprawling 1st District, hot issues included suburban growth, the environment and water rights. The Phoenix area was growing rapidly, and Mesa soon would be the state's second-largest city. The border with Mexico was not far away, and angst over illegal immigration was beginning to boil. The area was deeply conservative -- home to retirees starting over in the nation's Sun Belt and a large Mormon population.

Into this mix stumbled the aviator-turned-prisoner-turned-politician. At candidate forums and political debates, people expected to find him overmatched. His opponents were veteran state officeholders and understood the local issues. But McCain proved to be an effective campaigner.

Bruce D. Merrill, a political science professor at Arizona State University, recalled how McCain appeared at his office one day. A former Navy officer himself, Merrill chatted for an hour with McCain and was impressed by his political moxie.

"I never saw him as naive," Merrill said. "He's street-smart. He was a natural."

Merrill added: "When he first started, he'd go to precinct meetings and have people set up coffees, and he seemed to get the hang of it. He seemed to like that. One can argue there's a game of politics, that there are rules that you have to follow. He understood that fairly quickly."

With Hensley beer money and other contributions, the McCain camp began spreading his story through advertising. There were photos and videotapes of him limping across the tarmac, returning home after years as a prisoner of war.

The candidate also was aided by his friendship with Arizona Republic Publisher Darrow "Duke" Tully, who touted himself as a war hero and was eager to spread McCain's story across his pages. The two were so close that Tully was named godfather to John and Cindy McCain's first child.

(Tully resigned from the paper after it was learned that he had fabricated his war achievements; it turned out he had never served in the military.)

Another influential friend was financier Charles H. Keating Jr. The Phoenix resident raised more than $100,000 for McCain. (Keating went to prison in the 1990s for his role in the failure of Lincoln Savings & Loan.)

"John McCain had some pretty powerful friends at that time," said Donna Carlson, a state legislator and one of the three Republicans who squared off against him in the 1982 primary.

Carlson had moved to the Phoenix area about 15 years before McCain and worked to build her Arizona resume. She was a county committeewoman and a state representative. Before that she headed a local GOP women's group. When Rhodes stepped down, she figured it was her turn to move up. Two other candidates jumped in, which threatened to split the important Mormon vote.

Then, as she said, in waltzed this out-of-towner named John McCain. "It bothered me. It bothered a lot of people," she said.

At town hall meetings, she said, McCain's aura as a war hero upstaged everything. "It's pretty hard to run against that," she said. "How do you debate issues important to Arizona like groundwater contamination when everyone is talking about him as a POW celebrity?"

Another of the GOP candidates was state Sen. Jim Mack. He said he quickly realized that McCain was no lightweight, and that he had been grooming himself by working as the Navy's liaison to the Senate. "He didn't just drop off the Christmas tree," Mack said.

At one point, Mack reportedly tried to maneuver around the celebrity candidate by reaching out to McCain's first wife, Carol, in search of anything that might sink him. But Carol alerted McCain and, at the next debate, he unloaded.

"If you ever try to hurt anyone in my family again," McCain said he warned Mack, "I will personally beat the [expletive] out of you." In describing the incident in his memoirs, McCain said: "I used as much steel as I'm capable of demonstrating" in forcing Mack to back off. Asked about the episode, Mack said: "I don't want to talk about it."

McCain also got tough over the carpetbagger allegations. Asked at a forum whether he was just an interloper using Arizona for his own ends, McCain fired back that as a military brat, he was raised on Navy bases around the country -- his admiral father was always moving the family to a new home every couple of years.

"Listen, pal, 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 1st District of Arizona," McCain recalled in his autobiography. "But I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think back about it now, the place I lived the longest in my life was Hanoi."

At that moment the election seemed all but over. "You could feel the air go out of the room," Smith said.

McCain won the primary with 32% of the vote. In the general election, he beat Democrat Bill Hegarty, a high school driver's-ed teacher, by more than 35 points. Will Hegarty said his dad had no chance.

"The Republicans could have put a yellow dog up for Congress and they would have beaten Jesus Christ if he was a Democrat," he said.

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richard.serrano@latimes.com

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On latimes.com

The key players

To read more Times articles that take an in-depth look at John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, see latimes.com/candidates.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday, June 21, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction McCain's first race: A May 30 article in Section A about the start of John McCain's political career in the early 1980s said that Mesa, Ariz., "soon would be the state's second-largest city." It should have said "third-largest city."
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