Conservative J. D. Hayworth - Taking on Moderate John McCain

Conservative J. D. Hayworth - Taking on Moderate John McCain

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Mr. McCain hasn't faced a serious challenge since joining the U.S. Senate in 1987. But seven months ahead of the primary, he is using tough-guy tactics and calling in conservative chits to fend off J.D. Hayworth, an ex-congressman and radio host. Mr. Hayworth, who lost his House seat in 2006 and who is best known in Arizona for his opposition to illegal immigration, has seized the Tea Party mantle of low taxes and small government.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republicans' standard-bearer in 2008, is facing a surprisingly strong primary challenge from the right, evidence that even party leaders aren't safe from the swell of conservative activism heading into the 2010 midterm elections.

With the senator's approval, McCain allies filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission and the Federal Communications Commission essentially alleging that Mr. Hayworth's three-hour radio show—during which he regularly attacked Mr. McCain—was a form of campaign advertising. In January, Mr. Hayworth and the station agreed to drop his program. Smokey Rivers, Phoenix director of programming and operations for KFYI's owner, San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications Inc., said Mr. McCain wasn't a factor.

Jason Rose, a Hayworth aide, described the move as a "political mugging." Mr. McCain isn't shy about admitting his role in knocking Mr. Hayworth off the air. "I certainly didn't discourage it," he said in an interview. "I'm not saying he couldn't say anything he wanted to, but it's clear that was a political campaign he was running on the radio station."

The 73-year-old Mr. McCain is also bringing to Arizona his 2008 running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to campaign on his behalf in March, a bid to secure his right flank. He can also count in his corner Republican Scott Brown, who shook up the national political scene last month by winning the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by the late Edward Kennedy, a Democrat.

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Last week, responding to anger about banks and bailouts—a popular theme on the insurgent right—Mr. McCain voted against the confirmation of Ben Bernanke for a second stint as Federal Reserve chairman. He also stunned Senate colleagues by opposing a special commission to tackle the country's mounting debt; he was a co-sponsor of the initiative but pulled his support when conservatives criticized it as a tax-raising vehicle. "I want a spending commission, not one that will raise taxes," he said. "And the way this was composed, it would have likely recommended an increase in taxes."

The normally feisty Mr. McCain also has been acquiescent in the face of a new Supreme Court decision gutting his signature campaign-finance law, which had been unpopular with some conservatives.

Mr. Hayworth, 51, plans to declare his candidacy on Feb. 15, a spokesman said, but he is already raising money and spending it in an effort to unseat Mr. McCain. One of Mr. Hayworth's first moves was to hold a fund-raiser to pay off legal bills lingering from his tangential association while in Congress with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Mr. Hayworth wasn't charged with any wrongdoing.

To bolster his claim that Mr. McCain is insufficiently conservative—a complaint that has dogged Mr. McCain throughout his career—Mr. Hayworth is highlighting the senator's 2008 vote for the $700 billion bank rescue, and his opposition to President George W. Bush's tax cuts.

A Rasmussen poll in November showed the two men in a virtual tie. A more recent poll had Mr. McCain with a 22-point lead, 53% to 31%. Mr. Rose, the Hayworth aide, said the campaign's polling shows the race closer than that, but not as close as November.

"This is not an idle threat that Mr. McCain faces, and the reason has more to do with his history with conservatives than just about anything else," said pollster Scott Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Reports. Mr. McCain's positions on campaign finance and immigration, among other areas, have also set him apart from the party's right.

It is the kind of intramural dodgeball playing out around the country as establishment-backed Republicans find themselves pelted by anti-big government, anti-spending, anti-tax populists. Among the battlegrounds are Senate primaries in Florida, where conservative darling Marco Rubio, a former state lawmaker, is taking on Gov. Charlie Crist, and in California, where Chuck Devore, a conservative state assemblyman, is challenging the establishment choices, ex-congressman Tom Campbell and former Hewlett-Packard Co. Chief Executive Carly Fiorina.

"Arizona's Republicans deserve a choice and an alternative to Mr. McCain's moderate record on taxes, social issues, the border and bailing out the banks," Mr. Hayworth said in a robo-call his campaign said it would place to tens of thousands of Arizona Republicans.

Arizona political analysts say Mr. Hayworth may be able to capture the energy of the small-government conservatives, as well as anti-immigration voters. They are also the people most likely to show up at a primary held in the heat of the Arizona summer, Mr. Rasmussen said.

"Anybody who doesn't take J.D.'s race against McCain seriously is crazy," said Bruce Merrill, professor emeritus of mass communication at Arizona State University, and a former teacher of Mr. Hayworth. He predicted, though, that Mr. McCain will prevail.

With $5 million in the McCain campaign treasury, according to an aide, the senator has hit the Arizona airwaves, portraying himself as "Arizona's last line of defense" against government spending, bloated bureaucracy and government-run health care.—Neil King Jr. and Stephen Power contributed to this article.

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