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The Fix: Has John McCain started to panic?

By Chris Cillizza
Tuesday, May 11, 2010; 5:24 PM

For the last month, Arizona Sen. John McCain has been running his primary campaign against former Rep. J.D. Hayworth as if it was the final weekend of the 2008 presidential campaign.

On a daily basis, McCain's team bashes Hayworth while simultaneously working to shore up the Senator's right flank through a series of symbolic acts ranging from the rejection of the "maverick" title he wore proudly during both of his presidential campaigns to his forceful support of Arizona's controversial new immigration law.

(McCain released an ad recently in which he urges the federal government to "complete the danged fence", a message that seems to be a departure in emphasis -- if not substance -- from his past position.)

Republican observers are divided about the message being sent by McCain's aggressiveness: is he acting out of an abundance of caution or is he panicked by the possibility he will come up short against Hayworth on Aug. 24?

McCain communications director Brian Rogers, not surprisingly insists it's the former option at work. "We have understood from the very beginning that this is one of the most challenging environments for incumbents that we've seen for decades," he told the Fix, adding the the Senator is running more against the environment than against Hayworth who he described as "irrelevant" in terms of the McCain strategy.

Rogers added that McCain draws more attention by dint of his role as a former nominee of the party and that the criticism that he is somehow changing from the old McCain has been around for years -- noting that people leveled that criticism at him as far back as 2004 when he endorsed George W. Bush for re-election.

(One high level Republican strategist suggested the hyper-intensity of the McCain campaign is due to the fact that many of his advisers in the 2008 presidential race -- Rogers, campaign manager Rick Davis, media consultant Fred Davis and pollster Bill McInturff -- are also involved in the Senate race and haven't adjusted entirely to the scaling back from a nationwide bid to a single state contest.)

Even McCain's staunchest allies acknowledge, however, that Hayworth poses the most serious challenge to McCain's re-election prospects since he was first elected to the House in 1982. That vulnerability is due not only to the anti-incumbent sentiment in the country but also the primacy of immigration as a central issue in the race -- an issue that nearly ended McCain's 2008 presidential hopes when he came out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform.

Public polling bears the closeness of the race out. A Research 2000 poll conducted for the liberal Daily Kos blog earlier this month showed McCain leading Hayworth 48 percent to 36 percent. That margin is, roughly, reflected in private polling that shows McCain at or slightly above 50 percent but with a double digit edge over Hayworth, according to sources who have seen the data.

The central question of the race is whether Hayworth is the right messenger to seize the anti-establishment energy being channeled through the Tea Party movement across the country.

First elected in 1994, Hayworth held the 5th district until 2006 when he was ousted by Democrat Harry Mitchell who ran against Hayworth's big personality -- he is a former sportscaster -- and ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

McCain has picked up where Mitchell left off -- battering Hayworth on ethics and seeking to paint him as a big spending earmarker during his 12 years on Congress.

Hayworth's problem at the moment is that he is badly outgunned financially by McCain. At the end of March, McCain had $4.6 million in the bank after spending nearly $3 million in the first three months of the year alone. Hayworth, by contrast had $681,000 in the bank after spending $392,000 between Jan. 1 and March 31.

Hayworth doesn't need as much money as McCain to win the race but he does have to stay within shouting distance so that voters looking for an alternative know that they have one.

It's clear that there is a certain segment of Arizona Republicans who, over the years since McCain was elected to the Senate in 1986, have soured on him and will vote for anyone other than him on the Aug. 24 ballot.

But, those voters do not comprise a majority in the primary -- meaning that Hayworth must find a way reach more moderate Republicans and even independents (who can vote in the GOP primary) to seriously threaten McCain. To date, Hayworth has shown little inclination to make that outreach.

McCain's situation is clearly precarious given the depth of anti-incumbent sentiment nationwide and the frustration directed at him by many conservatives. But, unlike some of his colleagues -- Utah Sen. Bob Bennett being a prime example -- McCain has recognized early the seriousness of the threat and moved to solve the problem.

Does that mean victory is assured? Far from it. But McCain appears to be doing everything he can to avoid that nightmare scenario.

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