Republican John McCain is trying to persuade Americans to elect him president. But he has had no problem persuading Arizonans to elect him to the Senate four times — each time by a large margin.
Back in 1957, when Maverick was just a TV series, McCain was a student at the Naval Academy in Maryland. Thirty years later, McCain entered the U.S. Senate and gradually adopted his own Western theme.
The persona fits well with Arizona's Old West image — a place for rugged individualists to make a new start. After all, that's what McCain did when he married his second wife, Cindy, and moved to the state. Arizona State University professor and longtime political pollster Bruce Merrill says the voters have embraced the brand.
"They admire him as a POW. They admire him as a maverick, a gunslinger kind of a guy," he said.
The problem is that McCain has taken stances opposite of his own party.
"The leadership of the party has been so unhappy at times that they've threatened to try recalls against him," Merrill said.
State Republican leaders differ with McCain on campaign finance reform, embryonic stem cell research and, most notably, on immigration. In 2005, McCain unsuccessfully pushed a bill that would have granted undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. Critics called it amnesty, which McCain vehemently denied.
"This is a $2,000 fine. This is six years of having to work before even becoming eligible for green-card status. It is no more amnesty than I am a Martian," McCain said at the time.
Since then, McCain has adjusted his position, calling for increased border security before any other immigration reform. Many of Arizona's Republican Party leaders endorsed his rivals during this year's presidential primaries, although they support McCain now.
McCain's Relationship With Arizona Voters
Arizona voters have always supported McCain, electing him to the Senate with 60 percent, 56 percent, 69 percent and 70 percent of the vote. In statewide races, Merrill says McCain has been able to attract mainstream voters.
"The more conservative-leaning Democrats and independents and the more moderate Republicans — that would've been [McCain's] coalition," he said.
Over the years, voters have forgiven McCain for his involvement in the Keating Five scandal, and they apparently do not mind that he does not bring home the pork.
"We don't need more money [from] the federal government. We need to take care of ourselves," said Kent Wick, a Republican and the former mayor of Paradise Valley.
There is a sense that Arizona's other Republican senator, Jon Kyl, is more involved with constituent services and the day-to-day issues that affect Arizona. Kyl is the workhorse, while McCain has become the show horse.
As Merrill points out, that's the same as the only other major-party presidential nominee from Arizona.
"Barry Goldwater was more of a national senator. And I think it's fair to say that over the last seven or eight years — while he's been running for president — that's been true of John," Merrill said.
This seems to be OK with voters. P.J Lopez is a Tucson attorney and a Democrat. He says he is not voting for McCain for president, but he likes him as a senator. Lopez says McCain's high profile has been good for Arizona — or at least, not bad.
"When the national media is talking about him, I don't know if it reflects positively on the state, but it's just — it's not a negative," he said.
McCain is expected to win his home state handily in November. Should he go on to win the presidency, he'll be the first Oval Office occupant from Arizona. If he loses, McCain faces another run for the Senate in two years.