McCain, Others Face Key Tests in Tuesday's Primaries
States with primaries Tuesday include Arizona, Alaska and Florida
McCain has spent 27 years in Congress
Workers were busy decorating the Phoenix Convention Center on Monday in preparation for an event honoring Senator John McCain, who is finishing up a bruising primary battle. This will be no retirement party, however. “Six more years!” is expected to be the refrain.
Polls showed Mr. McCain, 73, with a comfortable lead — anywhere from 15 to 21 points, depending on who was doing the polling — over his Republican challenger, J. D. Hayworth, 51, a conservative former radio talk show host and six-term congressman who offered a spirited challenge but one that seemed to lose sizzle the longer it went on.
Mr. McCain’s comfortable position as Arizonans prepared to vote on Tuesday was a reversal of fortunes from earlier in the year, when he was considered a potential victim of the anti-establishment fervor sweeping the nation.
Even some of his supporters had predicted that he would be cleaning out his office like his veteran Senate colleagues Robert F. Bennett, Republican of Utah, and Arlen Specter, Democrat of Pennsylvania.
Mr. McCain is not the only Republican incumbent facing a primary Tuesday. In Alaska, Senator Lisa Murkowski faces Joe Miller, a Fairbanks lawyer who has been endorsed by Sarah Palin. And in Florida, the main action is on the Democratic side, where Representative Kendrick B. Meek faces Jeff Greene, a billionaire developer, in the Senate primary.
In the Arizona race, Mr. McCain had clear vulnerabilities going in: his 27 years in Washington at a time when the anti-incumbency mood was fierce and his high-profile efforts to reform the immigration system that ran up against the hard-line approaches emanating from Arizona.
But by spending freely and by acting as if he might lose, the senator managed to turn things around. Mr. McCain tapped into money left over from his failed presidential effort, spending more than $20 million (compared with about $3 million for Mr. Hayworth) making his visage and his harsh attacks on Mr. Hayworth omnipresent on Arizona’s airwaves.
Mr. McCain’s spending was among the highest ever for a Senate primary in Arizona and, depending on turnout, could translate into more than $75 a vote, political analysts said.
The question now is whether Mr. McCain’s sharp shift to the right during the campaign — the onetime maverick declared at one point that he no longer wanted anything to do with that label — will ultimately come back to haunt him and perhaps tarnish his legacy as a pragmatist willing to reach across the aisle.
“I can’t get into the senator’s mind,” said Bruce Merrill, a longtime Arizona pollster and political analyst, who worked for Mr. McCain’s 1982 House campaign. “I don’t know if he’s become more conservative or if it’s just good politics. Nobody knows for sure — except the senator.”
One key to Mr. McCain’s rebound was how he neutralized Mr. Hayworth’s, and Arizona’s, big issue — immigration. The senator endorsed Arizona’s immigration crackdown, known as 1070. He changed his mind on the necessity of the border fence, insisting that it was effective and declaring gruffly in one ad: “Complete the danged fence.” He also backpedaled fiercely on whether there ought to be a path to citizenship for those who entered the country against the rules, which in the past he has endorsed.
Battling until the end, both candidates appeared Monday on a Tucson radio station. Mr. Hayworth urged voters to “shock the world” by voting him in while Mr. McCain sought to burnish his conservative credentials by likening himself to Ronald Reagan.
Many of Mr. Hayworth’s wounds were self-inflicted. Portraying himself as a Washington outsider, Mr. Hayworth was hurt by campaign contributions he received from Jack Abramoff,the lobbyist sent to federal prison for fraud.
And the McCain campaign uncovered an old infomercial of Mr. Hayworth offering advice on how taxpayers could finagle more money out of the federal government. The McCain campaign ran snippets and questioned Mr. Hayworth’s character. “Huckster?” the ad asked.
“The best day of the campaign was the day that Hayworth announced,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report. “It was all downhill from there.”
Or as Chip Scutari, a Republican campaign consultant, put it: “The McCain-Hayworth battle royale never made it past the opening bell.”
Although Mr. Hayworth won the support of some segment of the Tea Party movement, many conservative activists stayed neutral or sided with Mr. McCain, who campaigned vigorously through both traditional methods and social media.
“Spent the day in Prescott Valley and Prescott. Now on my way to buy pie at the Rock Springs Cafe,” he told followers on Twitter over the weekend, tracking his movements through the state. So connected is Mr. McCain that he was recently named by university researchers as having the highest “Digital IQ” in the Senate. He currently has more than 1.7 million Twitter followers and more than 650,000 Facebook fans.
Mr. Hayworth tried mightily to portray the senator as out of touch and politically malleable, points the Democrats were likely to drive home in the fall. “John McCain will do whatever it takes to keep his job,” Rodney Glassman, former vice mayor of Tucson, a leading Democratic contender, said Monday in gearing up for the general election.
With Republicans and independents making up a bulk of the voters in the state, Democrats need something unexpected to unfold in order to win, like what happened in 1976.
In that election, two Republican Senate candidates hammered each other so hard during the primary that the Republican Party was divided and a little-known Democrat, Dennis DeConcini, managed to eke out a victory.
Reached on vacation in California, Mr. DeConcini, 73, who served 21 years in the Senate, made clear first that he was no fan of Mr. McCain. “We’re not the least bit friendly,” he said.
Then he went on to analyze the candidate. “It’s not that I was above changing my positions, but McCain has made it an art form,” he said. “He was a maverick, but I guess he’s not anymore. One thing he is is vulnerable. He can’t change that.”