- The Washington Times - Monday, February 15, 2010

After coming within a few million votes of the presidency, John McCain is suddenly facing the toughest re-election fight of his nearly 24-year Senate career.

Former Rep. J.D. Hayworth is slated Monday to kick off his campaign for the U.S. Senate with a three-day, 10-city tour across Arizona. Mr. Hayworth, 51, a favorite of the insurgent “tea party” movement and a border-security hawk, is running as a younger, brasher, more conservative alternative to Mr. McCain, who turns 74 a few days after the Republican Party’s Aug. 24 primary.

“I have a lot of respect for John McCain - he’s served this nation admirably - but this is about policy,” Mr. Hayworth said in a telephone interview. “Although he describes himself as a maverick, he’s really a moderate. So many people have reached out to me and said, ‘Please, we need a conservative senator.’ ”

Arizonans can hardly be faulted for thinking the challenge has been under way for months. The McCain campaign began running negative ads aimed at Mr. Hayworth shortly after Thanksgiving. Mr. Hayworth, on his Phoenix-based radio talk show, has routinely criticized the senator for what he calls less-than-conservative stances.

Mr. Hayworth had speculated on the air that he might run for the Republican nomination, but the talk grew serious after a Rasmussen Reports poll released at Thanksgiving showed him in a statistical dead heat with Mr. McCain.

The McCain campaign quickly began airing spots on KFYI-AM, Mr. Hayworth’s station, saying the former congressman had supported pork-barrel spending and earmarks. The campaign also succeeded in knocking Mr. Hayworth off the air by filing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission contending that his talk show was violating political equal-time rules.

“J.D. Hayworth. That’s not what Arizona wants,” says one McCain radio ad. “He sounds conservative on the radio, but J.D. was one of the biggest spenders in Congress.”

Mr. Hayworth counters that his lifetime rating from Citizens Against Government Waste is higher than Mr. McCain’s.

Mr. McCain has moved to cover his right flank on a number of high-profile issues in the past few months. After years of advocating legislation to address climate change, Mr. McCain now rejects the Obama administration’s “cap and trade” proposal to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2007, Mr. McCain co-sponsored a bill that would have created a path for illegal immigrants to become citizens. He now says his policy approach emphasizes border security.

His campaign is touting the endorsements of top conservative figures, starting with his 2008 vice-presidential running mate. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is scheduled to appear at rallies for Mr. McCain in March.

Also supporting the senator are anti-tax guru Grover Norquist, former Education Secretary William J. Bennett and Sen. Scott Brown, a rising star in the Republican Party who recorded robocalls on Mr. McCain’s behalf within days of his upset victory in Massachusetts last month.

Mr. McCain kicked off his own campaign over the weekend with a series of appearances. He is scheduled to host a veterans town-hall meeting Thursday in Phoenix with two fellow former prisoners of war, Col. George “Bud” Day and Lt. Col. Orson Swindle.

The aggressive approach may be paying off: A Rasmussen Reports poll released in January showed Mr. McCain regaining ground and leading Mr. Hayworth by 53 percent to 31 percent in a hypothetical primary matchup.

However, a survey issued Jan. 28 by the Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center showed Mr. McCain with a favorable rating of 41 percent, the lowest since he was mired in the Keating Five affair tied to the savings-and-loan industry collapse in the late 1980s.

Le Templar, the Goldwater Institute’s communications director and former opinion writer for the East Valley Tribune, said Mr. McCain is smart to take the challenge seriously.

“J.D. has always been popular among core Republican voters,” said Mr. Templar. “Those who don’t think McCain is a true conservative are going to be very attracted to Hayworth.”

Mr. Hayworth’s loss of his House seat in 2006 is likely to become a campaign issue. That year, Democrats put up a strong challenger, Harry Mitchell, a popular former Tempe mayor and state senator widely viewed as the district’s elder statesman. Meanwhile, Mr. Hayworth was fighting charges of impropriety over campaign funding received by groups linked to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Mr. Hayworth ultimately was cleared of any wrongdoing but could not save his seat in a difficult year for Republicans. Although critics say Mr. Hayworth can’t be trusted to keep a Senate seat after losing his House post, others maintain that he was sandbagged by Democrats.

“Since then, a lot of Republicans have felt bad for J.D. Hayworth. They feel he got a raw deal,” Mr. Templar said.

Mr. Hayworth’s biggest obstacle may be money. He doesn’t have nearly the resources of Mr. McCain, whose campaign has $5 million in the bank. Yet he does have the energy and enthusiasm of the state’s tea party and border security activists - highly motivated voters who tend to dominate the state’s low-turnout summertime primaries.

A straw poll taken at the Maricopa County Republican Party convention Jan. 18 showed Mr. Hayworth besting Mr. McCain by a margin of 6-to-1. At the state Republican Party meeting a week later, Mr. Hayworth reportedly received the lion’s share of applause, while Mr. McCain was greeted with some calls of “J.D., J.D.”

Barbara Norrander, a University of Arizona political science professor, said criticism that Mr. McCain is too moderate has lingered for years in Arizona, yet he still has managed to win four Senate races.

“Inside the Republican Party, McCain is as he’s always been,” said Ms. Norrander. “The more conservative part of the party has always been suspicious of McCain, but he’s always been able to overcome that.”

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