McCain adapting to face a challenge from the right

Some years ago, a group of angry conservatives staged a march through this posh Phoenix suburb, venting their frustration with Sen. John McCain. He wished them well and, through a spokeswoman, suggested they all wear sunscreen.

These days, however, McCain is not so glib about the rancor on his right.

Two years after winning the GOP presidential nomination, McCain is facing his toughest reelection fight in nearly two decades -- a primary challenge that highlights his uneasy relationship with fellow Republicans and the perils of his White House pursuit.

There is little honor in might-have-been, nothing that inoculates McCain from the economic anxiety and anti-incumbent undertow pulling at officeholders everywhere. Arizona faces one of the country’s worst budget deficits: Parks are closing, 911 service faces cuts andchildrenare being kicked off the state insurance rolls.

“It’s tough times in Arizona,” McCain recently told broadcaster Don Imus. “Really tough.”

But it’s more than that. The traits that turned McCain into a national figure -- his ambition, his go-against-the-grain persona, his willingness to work with Democrats on climate change, judicial appointments, immigration and more -- are being used to question his loyalty to the state and his party.

“For the better part of a decade, with his pursuit of national office, Arizona went on a back burner,” said J.D. Hayworth, 51, the former congressman-turned-radio-host who is McCain’s main GOP rival. “I think voters in the Republican primary are looking for a consistent conservative and someone who will be a United States senator for Arizona and not just from Arizona.”

McCain, 73, is clearly the front-runner in the August primary as he bids for a fifth term. He has more money, a more experienced campaign team and the support of most of the GOP establishment.

Hayworth might have appropriated the language of Scott Brown -- “This Senate seat does not belong to any one party or any one personality” -- but the Massachusetts senator is backing McCain. On Friday and Saturday, Sarah Palin will campaign for her former running mate.

This is a different John McCain than the buccaneer of the 2000 presidential race, who became a hero to independent voters, or even than the more conservative 2008 presidential nominee.

Although he insists he hasn’t changed, he has moved rightward, criticizing the Wall Street bailout he backed (he said he was misled), dropping his support for cap-and-trade legislation to fight climate change, and ending his push for comprehensive immigration reform. When the Supreme Court undid much of the campaign finance law that bore his name and antagonized conservatives, McCain’s response was meek. (“I am disappointed.”)

Still, some GOP voters are skeptical.

“McCain has this amnesty thing that he hasn’t been talking about much lately,” said Tony Bainum, a 52-year-old tax preparer in Mesa, Ariz., using critics’ shorthand to describe, and oversimplify, McCain’s immigration plan. “But I think it’s in the back of his mind, and I have a problem with that.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is McCain’s pugnacity. Just about every day brings a new McCain endorsement, ad or attack. Some are substantive; others, such as a back-and-forth over a Hayworth spoof showing McCain in “Avatar"-like blue paint, are not.

Hayworth, a former TV sportscaster, is hard to overlook. He stands 6 feet 5 and has a booming voice and a flair for the theatrical -- during a recent Rotary Club speech he performed the plummy accents of both Winston Churchill and his wife, Clementine.

He came to Congress from the Phoenix suburbs in the 1994 GOP landslide and emerged as one of the most outspoken members of that conservative class. In 2006, he was defeated after six terms by Democrat Harry E. Mitchell, and spent the next several years as a host on conservative KFYI.

Although Hayworth blames his defeat on atmospherics (read: Bush fatigue), he also suffered from ties to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the roughly $100,000 in contributions received from Abramoff’s Indian tribe clients.

It might seem a 12-year veteran of Capitol Hill with a scandal in his past may not be the best political messenger this year, but Hayworth calls his experience an asset.

“I’m at an advantage because I know what went right and what went wrong,” he said. Even so, the four biggest Arizona “tea parties” have professed their neutrality in the race.

McCain’s biggest worry is the primary date, Aug. 24, when the heat means those likeliest to vote will be the most ideologically driven: the sort of people who would picket -- and risk sunburn -- to show their discontent.

“J.D.'s been getting them going for the last four years on his radio show,” said independent pollster Bruce Merrill. “Those are the people he talked to every day.”