Hammering Hayworth

Conservatives watch their champion crumble before John McCain

Sen. John McCain has long had trouble with the conservative wing of his own party here in Arizona.

McCain's critics were angered that he supported a Bush administration immigration-reform package that included a guest-worker program and a plan to grant legal status to many people who had crossed into the United States without proper paperwork.

They were furious that he supported campaign-finance reform. They were outraged that he opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They felt betrayed when he warned that the Bush tax cuts would lead to deficit spending.

Never mind that during his run to the right in pursuit of the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, McCain reversed himself on nearly all of those positions. Those who consider themselves the truest of Arizona conservatives just don't trust John McCain.

So they were delighted earlier this year when Maricopa County right-wing radio jock J.D. Hayworth, who lost his bid for a seventh congressional term in the blue wave of 2006, announced he'd answer the call to challenge McCain.

Calling himself the consistent conservative, Hayworth assailed McCain as a once-good man who stood too often "with the liberals." He complained that McCain voted for the TARP bank bailouts and attacked McCain for supporting restrictions on greenhouse gases to combat global warming. He went so far as to criticize McCain, who suffered through torture during his years of captivity in Vietnam, for being reluctant to waterboard captured terrorists.

For a time, it appeared that conservative anger, combined with an anti-incumbent mood brewing thanks in large part to the Tea Party movement, might pose a threat to McCain. An April Rasmussen poll showed that Hayworth was within 5 percentage points of McCain. (Most other polls have never showed Hayworth within single digits, and Rasmussen is often criticized by other pollsters for using flawed methods.)

But McCain had no plans to let Hayworth end his 28-year career of representing Arizona in Washington, D.C. To fend off Hayworth, McCain has moved yet further to the right in recent months, even bringing in conservative darling Sarah Palin for a campaign swing, and promising to oppose just about anything proposed by the Obama administration, from health-care reform to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.

McCain even dismissed his entire brand during a spring interview with Newsweek, telling a reporter: "I never considered myself a maverick."

At the same time, McCain set out to dismantle Hayworth. The conservative champion has a flawed record of his own—and the McCain campaign has relentlessly exploited it, spending millions of dollars on mailers and TV ads hammering Hayworth as a big-spending huckster who turned to lobbying after voters booted him from office.

The McCain campaign mocked Hayworth for questioning whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States and for suggesting that allowing gays to wed could lead to a man marrying his horse—but the knockout punch was the highlighting of Hayworth's paid appearance on an infomercial that promised viewers "free government money" if they purchased a catalog listing government grants.

While McCain has spent a staggering $15 million on his re-election campaign, Hayworth has struggled to raise funds and was reduced to responding to McCain's attacks via YouTube videos.

Hayworth's last real shot at McCain came in a pair of debates last month, during which the two men savaged each other. McCain hammered Hayworth for appearing in the infomercial—"nobody can call themselves a conservative when they engage in that kind of activity"—while Hayworth shot back with a complaint about McCain's many flip-flops: "You're not a statesman anymore; you're a political shape-shifter."

Hayworth even taunted McCain over his failed presidential ambitions: "John, if you had told the truth about Barack Obama the way you're spreading falsehoods about me, you might be president of the United States right now."

But the debates appear to have done Hayworth little good. The most recent Rasmussen survey—a late-July poll taken in the wake of the debates—gave McCain a 20-point lead, with 54 percent of voters supporting the four-term incumbent, and only 34 percent of GOP voters behind Hayworth.

Little-known Tea Party activist Jim Deakin, who offers a protest vote to voters who like neither McCain nor Hayworth, has never risen above single digits in polls.

When Hayworth launched his campaign, he promised "a classic political confrontation: John McCain and the Washington establishment on one side, and we the people on the other."

Unless something very dramatic happens in the next few weeks, it looks like McCain's Washington establishment will thoroughly trounce Hayworth's we the people.