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McCain Faces Election Challenger From The Right

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McCain Faces Election Challenger From The Right

McCain Faces Election Challenger From The Right

McCain Faces Election Challenger From The Right

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/124038137/124052147" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Former Republican Rep. J.D. Hayworth shakes hands with supporters as he kicks off his campaign to challenge Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain at a campaign rally Feb. 15. Ross D. Franklin/AP hide caption

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Ross D. Franklin/AP

Former Republican Rep. J.D. Hayworth shakes hands with supporters as he kicks off his campaign to challenge Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain at a campaign rally Feb. 15.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

In four elections to the U.S. Senate, Arizona Republican John McCain has never faced a serious challenge, but he appears to be facing one this year. And it's from within the Republican Party.

As in Republican races in several other states, a challenger has emerged on the right.

Immigration Blowback

John McCain has been popular with Arizona voters. But during his 24 years in the Senate, he's also ticked off people in his own party. It's the price he's paid for being, yes, a maverick. Especially on Arizona's hot-button issue: immigration.

In 2006, McCain voted in a losing effort to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. For months last fall, former congressman turned radio talk show host J.D. Hayworth blasted McCain on the air.

"It is about time you represent we the people of the United States of America and your Arizona constituents, instead of illegal invaders and criminal trespassers," Hayworth said.

Hayworth recently ended his show and took his anger one step further: He's running against McCain. Hayworth has traveled the state, declaring himself an outsider — and the true conservative.

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"John McCain and the Washington establishment on one side, and 'we the people' on the other," Hayworth said.

McCain: Not Conservative Enough?

Last week, about 100 people gathered for a campaign event for the imposing 6-foot-5-inch Hayworth in a downtown Tucson park. Many said they'd liked him since he appeared at a local Tea Party event last year.

"I just want somebody that I know that I really feel is a conservative and not a Republican in name only," said Kathy Peak, who attended the event.

Now, Hayworth was not encouraged to run simply by fans like Peak. More likely, it was a couple of polls last fall — one that showed nearly two-thirds of Arizona Republicans thought McCain was out of touch with his party's base, and one that showed Hayworth even with McCain. Put those two together, and you have the argument for Hayworth's candidacy: John McCain isn't a conservative at all — he's a liberal.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) addresses a crowd of mainly veterans on Feb. 18. Ross D. Franklin/AP hide caption

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Ross D. Franklin/AP

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) addresses a crowd of mainly veterans on Feb. 18.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

"Just like the liberals, John opposes waterboarding captured terrorists like the Christmas bomber," Hayworth told those gathered at the park. "Just like the liberals, John wants the prison at Gitmo shut down. And just like the liberals, John wrote the campaign finance law just struck down by the Supreme Court that denied free speech rights to groups like the National Rifle Association."

McCain began fighting back even before Hayworth announced his candidacy. He ran ads touting his conservative credentials on Hayworth's own radio show.

One ad contends that "character matters," which could be read as a swipe at Hayworth. Hayworth was defeated in 2006 after 12 years in Congress, partly because of his association with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. It's a fact that McCain frequently points out.

"Mr. Hayworth was one of the big pork barrelers and earmarkers," McCain told NPR. "Got tied up with this character Abramoff that's now in jail. I fought against earmarks and pork barrel spending. My record is very clear."

Support Within The Party

McCain may have ticked off some people in his party, but he's also made a lot of friends.

Fellow Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl campaigned with McCain last week at a party dinner in Tucson. Some of the people in attendance with whom NPR spoke were Hayworth supporters; many were not ready to declare, but a lot were like Sam Stone, who said he's leaning toward McCain.

"Haven't made a formal decision yet, but I think John McCain at this point," Stone said. "I think his experience is telling. And former Congressman Hayworth I'm not sure is the right person at the right time right now."

One endorsement in particular may be helping McCain, someone who appeals deeply to Hayworth followers: Sarah Palin.

Next month, McCain's former running mate is scheduled to be in Arizona campaigning for him. Since that announcement, there's been a new poll — and it shows McCain up by more than 20 points. But the Arizona primary is in August, and August is a long time away.