By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010; A03
SIERRA VISTA, ARIZ. -- J.D. Hayworth is a voluble man who wants people to know where he stands. One recent day, he was standing a dozen miles from the porous Mexican border -- the problem he hopes will catapult him past incumbent John McCain (R-Ariz.) into the U.S. Senate.
"If you enforce the law, people will obey the law," Hayworth told the Thunder Mountain Republican Women, praising a strict new statute designed to curb illegal immigration. In a closely watched campaign increasingly defined by who can take the harder line, Hayworth is a border hawk who called his book about immigration policy "Whatever It Takes."
But McCain, seeking his fifth term, is not about to be out-toughed this year. Once seen as more moderate on immigration, McCain has also endorsed the state law, which requires police to question people they "reasonably suspect" are here illegally. And he wants to send thousands of National Guard soldiers to the border.
McCain's advertisements boast that he is "Arizona's last line of defense." In his newest spot, he walks the border with a county sheriff, who turns to McCain and declares, "You're one of us." For good measure, the senator who built a national brand by styling himself a maverick recently declared that he never considered himself one.
McCain's repositioning has fueled Hayworth's claim to be the "consistent conservative" while the incumbent is at best unpredictable. He mocked McCain's maverick comment, given that McCain named his 1999 campaign jet "Maverick 1" and subtitled his 2003 memoir "The Education of an American Maverick."
Although McCain won the Republican nomination for president just two years ago, Hayworth pays little homage to his pedigree. He foresees an upset, thanks to the country's anti-incumbent mood and the candidacy of a 73-year-old politician who ran an uneven presidential campaign and is distrusted by many conservatives.
Yet McCain remains the favorite with the Aug. 24 primary still three months away. He has money in the bank -- $4.6 million to Hayworth's $861,000 at the end of March -- and a lead in the polls. Public Policy Polling showed McCain 11 points ahead in mid-April and the Rocky Mountain Poll showed him leading by 26 points. No top-tier Democrat has entered the race, which makes the winner of the GOP primary the favorite to win in November.
Hayworth, a tart-tongued talk-radio host and former congressman 22 years younger than McCain, is trying to close the gap with raw energy and a sharp line of attack.
"It's going to be competitive," predicted Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report. "McCain is fortunate in that he recognized his own problems early. He's really been focused on shoring himself up where he needs to be."
McCain strategists saw a danger signal in the undoing of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R). Crist expected an easy victory in the Republican senatorial primary, only to abandon the GOP for an independent bid when he found himself far behind state Rep. Marco Rubio (R), a candidate backed by "tea party" followers.
"We've recognized correctly that we need to be aggressive," said Brian Rogers, McCain's campaign spokesman. "Immigration is the dominant issue. It's that and the economy, and they're connected in people's minds."
McCain is likely to benefit from the party's decision to hold an open primary, allowing independents, who typically favor the senator, to cast ballots. He also won the endorsement of former running mate Sarah Palin and got a boost when Arizona's four largest tea party groups decided not to endorse a candidate.
"Both McCain and Hayworth's records during their many years in Washington leave much to be desired," Robert Mayer, co-founder of the Tucson Tea Party, explained in a written statement, saying the movement "stands for limited government, free markets, and fiscal responsibility."
But Hayworth has his supporters. "My experience of John is he says whatever he says at the moment," Chuck Fitzgerald, a state employee, said at a Hayworth event in Sun City, adding that McCain's last-minute endorsement of the immigration bill seemed calculated. "Where's he been the last two years?"
Hayworth, too, was once more moderate on immigration, and he faces his own challenges, including ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. As a six-term congressman, he used sports skyboxes that Abramoff billed to clients, but did not report that fact to the Federal Election Commission until Abramoff's criminal troubles became public. Hayworth's campaign committee later repaid the Choctaw and Chitimacha tribes $12,800 for using the suites.
Hayworth, 51, also has a propensity for headline-grabbing remarks. He said recently that a court ruling in favor of gay marriage could, in a "point of absurdity," be taken to permit the marriage of man and horse.
In Sun City, where more than 100 people gathered under a golf course gazebo to hear Hayworth, he said to applause that when he served as a congressman, he took an oath "to the Constitution of the United States and not the charter of the United Nations."
"It's not about service, it's about consistency," he said of McCain the next day in Sierra Vista. "My first term," said Hayworth, who wore a Ronald Reagan campaign ribbon, "will be all about the restoration of our constitutional republic."