Sen. John McCain of Arizona has been called many things during his lengthy political career: maverick, straight-talker, the White Tornado. But “border hawk” isn’t one of them. Until now.
Facing the toughest primary challenge of his 24-year Senate tenure, Mr. McCain has shelved his advocacy of a pathway to citizenship, denounced by its critics as amnesty, and embraced a crackdown on border security that includes the state’s new immigration law.
The law allows police to question people who they suspect are not citizens and requires them to carry proof of their status.
Mr. McCain announced his support for the legislation shortly after the governor signed it. His Republican primary opponent, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, was an early backer of the legislation, known as Senate Bill 1070.
“We do have an obligation to secure our borders so that our citizens are not threatened,” Mr. McCain said in an interview last week on KTAR-AM in Phoenix, although he has expressed reservations about portions of the new law.
“Now our job is to make sure that no citizen, under any circumstances, will have their rights threatened, no matter what their ethnic background is,” he said.
Mr. McCain is airing ads on Arizona television touting the new border security plan that he co-sponsored. It calls for deploying an additional 3,000 National Guard troops and 3,000 more Border Patrol agents in Arizona, increased funding for border security, and finishing the 700-mile border fence, with reinforcements along the Arizona sector.
The Hayworth campaign shot back by accusing Mr. McCain of undergoing an “election-year conversion” while adopting Mr. Hayworth’s long-held positions on immigration.
“This is a guy who five years ago was saying, ‘We’ve gotta have amnesty,’ ” said Hayworth spokesman Mark Sanders. “Now he’s saying, ‘Build a fence and put troops on the border.’ He’s done a total turnaround on the issue.”
Whether Mr. McCain’s move to the right will save his political career remains unclear.
The senator has led the race consistently since January, although poll numbers have swung wildly. An April 16 Rasmussen Reports survey showed Mr. McCain leading among primary voters by five percentage points, while a Behavior Research Center poll released Wednesday found the incumbent with a 26-point lead. On Thursday, a Public Policy Polling survey found Mr. McCain ahead by 11 percentage points - 46 percent to 35 percent.
More worrisome for the McCain campaign is his favorability rating, which remains consistently low. About 34 percent of Arizona voters surveyed approve of his job performance, while 55 percent disapprove, according to the Public Policy Polling results. Even among Republican voters, 44 percent approved of Mr. McCain’s job performance, while 45 percent said they disapproved.
McCain spokesman Brian Rogers called the senator’s position “fully consistent” with his previous work on immigration. While Mr. McCain was a prime mover on the 2007 immigration legislation that would have streamlined the citizenship process for illegal immigrants, Mr. Rogers said, the senator has since called for tightening border security.
“Since the last effort failed in 2007, he’s said the border has to be secured first before we address anything else,” said Mr. Rogers. “They say deploying the National Guard is an election-year conversion, but McCain’s been calling for troops since March 2009, before the election was a glint in J.D. Hayworth’s eye.”
Dee Dee Blase, founder of Somos Republicans, an Arizona Hispanic Republican group, chalked up Mr. McCain’s hard-line stance to his need to defend himself against the Hayworth campaign’s attacks. Mr. Hayworth has made border security, and Mr. McCain’s perceived support for amnesty, the centerpiece of his primary challenge.
Somos Republicans opposed Senate Bill 1070. Some said it would lead to racial profiling of Hispanic citizens. Even so, she said, she doubted Mr. McCain’s support for the measure would cost him votes among the state’s Hispanic Republicans.
“McCain, even though he said what he said, he’s still 10,000 times better than Hayworth,” said Ms. Blase. “He hurt us, but we’ll hold our nose and vote for him.”
Meanwhile, the Hayworth campaign is running at least two YouTube videos splicing Mr. McCain’s previous televised remarks opposing a border fence with his current tough talk on immigration.
“One senator. One man. So many different positions,” Mr. Hayworth says in a video released last week. “What a difference a campaign makes.”
The Hayworth campaign is confident that the challenger’s poll numbers will rise once his television ads air, slated for early summer. The primary election is Aug. 24.
“Sen. McCain has spent $2.5 million on TV ads attacking J.D. Hayworth, whereas we haven’t spent a penny,” said Mr. Sanders. “These numbers are going to change once we go on TV.”
He also dismissed the impact of Mr. McCain’s immigration migration, saying most Arizona voters won’t be fooled.
“It’s gone from skepticism to cynicism in the minds of the voters, and it’s hurt him,” said Mr. Sanders. “Voters are smart. They know when they’re being pandered to.”