McCain, Palin reunite in reelection effort for senator

Senator John McCain has reunited with his former running mate Sarah Palin at a rally in Arizona Friday where McCain is fending off a primary challenge from the right and facing the toughest re-election campaign of his Senate career
By Sandhya Somashekhar and Paul Kane
Saturday, March 27, 2010

TUCSON -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) may have launched Sarah Palin's national political career, but on Friday it was Palin who was lending a bit of her star power, joining her former running mate at their first joint campaign event since the 2008 presidential election.

In the first of two public events this week to give a boost to McCain's imperiled reelection bid, Palin headlined a rally that drew thousands to a dusty fairgrounds outside Tucson. The two strode together onto the stage, joined by their spouses, an image that evoked, for better or worse, McCain's failed bid for the White House.

Palin described McCain as an elder statesman and a populist and reminded the crowd of his "maverick" reputation.

"We've come a long way from the 2008 campaign," she said as McCain stood behind her. "It was an honor to stand beside him in 2008, and it's an honor to stand beside him now, to ask that you, Arizona, for the sake of your state, for the sake of our country, that you send the maverick back to the United States Senate."

The audience cheered Palin heartily and waved red pompoms and cowboy hats as she spoke.

McCain supporters hope the former Alaska governor's full-throated endorsement, and her well-established following among conservatives, will fortify the senator's campaign. He is facing a vigorous Republican primary challenge from talk show host and former congressman J.D. Hayworth, who has rallied conservative "tea party" activists to his side.

Polls show a tightening race, and many in attendance Friday said that, although they had come to see Palin, they had abandoned support for McCain long ago.

"The only reason I'm here is because of Palin," said Maria Wilcox, 43, who flashed a palm on which she had written "Palin 2012." McCain, she said, has "crossed the aisle too many times."

Hayworth has gained ground among Republicans by highlighting how McCain gained the reputation of a maverick, through taking on not only national leaders but also his own party. McCain vociferously opposed President Bush's landmark tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, and McCain co-authored immigration legislation with the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) that would have created a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Leaning to the right

Since returning to the Senate from his 2008 presidential campaign, however, McCain has emphasized conservative issues and been the lead Republican opponent to every hallmark issue for Obama and Democrats in Congress, including the stimulus legislation pushed through last year and the acrimonious health-care debate that concluded this week.

Far from Washington, Palin has personified the populist anger over those issues. She has demanded more conservative principles from Republican candidates, and in an election in Upstate New York, rejected the GOP nominee, whom she regarded as too moderate to deserve election.

Many active in the tea party movement share those sentiments, and they have adopted Palin as their leading voice, even offering her the keynote address last month at the inaugural National Tea Party Convention.

In Arizona, tea party activists have largely backed Hayworth in the GOP primary, but McCain supporters are clearly hopeful that Palin's willingness to vouch for the Arizona senator and stand at his side here and at a Saturday morning event in Mesa, Ariz., will create second thoughts.

Palin described the tea party phenomenon Friday as "a beautiful, radical movement that is putting the government back on the side of the people," and she tied McCain to that activism, saying, "Everybody here today that supports John McCain is part of the tea party movement."

She acknowledged the desire for new blood in the Republican party but said there ought to be room for a "statesman and a hero" such as McCain.

When he took to the lectern after Palin, McCain tried to hit the same populist themes, taking aim at the new health-care law and promising to try to repeal it.

"There's something going on out there. There's something going on, and it's a revolution, a peaceful revolution," he said, stirring up the audience with his fiery delivery. "We're going to take on this Obamacare."

It was unclear, however, whether the tailored message made a difference to the more than 4,000 people at the rally. Although many wore McCain stickers, others festooned themselves with Sarah buttons and hats. Outside, a woman held a sign that said, "Sarah Supporter for J.D. Hayworth." When a Hayworth volunteer tried to hand one man a brochure, he replied, "No thanks. I'm already there."

Looking ahead

Inside the fairgrounds, some indicated that they had lost faith in McCain during the presidential campaign, which they felt was poorly executed. Others said he had bucked his party too often or that it was time for a fresh face. Many said they were angry that McCain and his fellow Republicans in Congress were unable to stave off health-care legislation.

"I decided to come here because I'd like to ask John McCain what he's going to do about the health-care bill," said Lisa Allen, 55. "I want it repealed, and nothing else will do."

As Palin promoted McCain's reelection, she also took the opportunity to rebut some of her critics. The former governor drew flak recently for posting a map on her Facebook page that depicted gun sights over states where her political action committee plans to spend money in the November elections. "We know violence is not the answer. When we talk about taking up arms, we're talking about our votes," she said.

Kane reported from Washington.

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