HEREFORD, Ariz. — Two years after he won the Republican presidential nomination, Sen. John McCain is fighting to keep his seat in the U.S. Senate.
Former U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth is challenging McCain in a hotly contested Republican primary in Arizona on Aug. 24, saying that McCain can't be trusted to act on the conservative rhetoric he's adopted in the past few years, particularly on illegal immigration.
Polls suggest that McCain's ahead, but Hayworth's challenge and anger among many of the state's conservatives suggest that the four-term senator still has to fight to win the nomination and go on to another six-year term.
"I feel fine, confident," McCain said in an interview, crisp in a freshly starched shirt during a campaign stop in Yuma on a hot day.
"The real question is who can be most effective for the state of Arizona," he added. "I've made that argument."
McCain, who will turn 74 on Aug. 29, is a fixture in Arizona politics. After distinguishing himself as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982, then won his first Senate term in 1986. Or, as he joked to a group of about 50, "since 1894."
Should he win and serve a fifth term, he'll match the Senate tenure of the late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who also won the Republican presidential nomination, then lost the 1964 general election. Goldwater was a conservative icon.
McCain's work with Democrats in Congress on several issues has angered conservatives. His worst offense? Working with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., on an immigration overhaul that would've created a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who already are in the U.S.
McCain changed course on the issue to win the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, saying he wanted to secure the border first. The scars linger, however, and skeptics wonder whether he means it.
"McCain is only conservative when he's running for office. He's liberal the rest of the time," said Cynthia Rose, an art gallery owner from Tubac, in southern Arizona.
"He has a history of being for amnesty," said Annette McHugh, a substitute teacher from Glendale. "We're not stupid. A liar is a liar."
Hayworth thinks that kind of anger at McCain will help him defy the polls and win the primary.
"We are poised to make political history," Hayworth, 52, said in an interview. "Despite his best efforts to play the cynical Washington game and try to buy the election and change the subject to demonize me, people remember his record. He cannot run from it. He cannot deny it. And those voters will remember it."
Hayworth knows about incumbents being defeated: He was beaten in the 2006 general election after six terms in the House.
McCain's supporters say they think that the senator is now fully committed to securing the border before pursuing any broader changes in immigration policy.
"I didn't like him rubbing elbows with the Kennedys, but he's learned," said Don Neely, a retired truck driver from Yuma.
"Sometimes he's seemed a little wishy-washy," said Amanda Kifer, a stay-at-home mom from Yuma. "But he's good now."
Some also like the fact that McCain will compromise in Congress to get some of what he wants, a trait that's Increasingly unpopular among activists in both parties. "Sometimes he has to be a little flexible," said Megan Kircher of Yuma.
"He gets it. He's been listening to Arizonans. He's been listening to the people in the United States. He gets it," said Yuma Mayor Alan Krieger, a McCain supporter.
"Before he ran for president, he talked with his base and the base said get on track. Is that a flip-flop? No. It's listening to the people."
McCain's run hard to ward off Hayworth, outspending him $15.6 million to $2.6 million, according to the latest figures from the Federal Election Commission.
He stresses his long crusades against earmark spending, hoping that will bolster his standing as a fiscal conservative at a time when conservatives are ever angrier about fast-rising federal government spending.
"The fact that I stood up against the Bush administration as well as the Obama administration on a variety of issues has earned me the respect of the people of Arizona," McCain said.
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