By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010; A03
Tuesday's primaries in Arizona and Florida appear likely to deliver a few surprises -- surprises, that is, for anyone who accepted the conventional wisdom of just a few months ago.
Back then, Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) was considered in danger of becoming the next victim of a "tea party" uprising that was threatening Republican candidates seen as straying from conservative orthodoxy.
In what was taken as a sign of his nervousness, he brought in his 2008 vice presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, who vouched for his conservative bona fides. Now he enjoys a double-digit lead in the polls over his challenger, former representative J.D. Hayworth.
In Florida, Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek was nearly written off this summer as he was being buried under an avalanche of television ads from his wealthy opponent, political novice Jeff Greene. Today, Meek leads Greene in the polls.
In that state's Republican gubernatorial primary, another wealthy businessman, Rick Scott, poured tens of millions of his money into his race against state Attorney General Bill McCollum. But after leading in the polls, Scott trails his rival.
The contests offer more evidence that establishment candidates can prosper in this year of the outsider. They are also a reminder that personal wealth cannot overcome personal flaws, particularly among political novices.
McCain's "comeback" is hardly on the scale of his victory in the battle for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. But it is another example of his tenacity as a candidate and his willingness to adapt to changing political circumstances, especially inside his party.
It is also a story of how McCain, anticipating potential trouble, worked to prevent conservative dissatisfaction from destroying his hopes for re-nomination.
Long before Hayworth emerged as a likely challenger, McCain took steps to protect himself, according to advisers.
He concluded soon after losing the 2008 presidential race that his party's base was rapidly moving into a posture of total opposition to President Obama. McCain quickly became an outspoken opponent of the president on virtually all major issues.
McCain also knew that conservatives still viewed him with suspicion, although during his presidential campaign he had softened his opposition to the Bush tax cuts and significantly hardened his position on immigration. With that in mind, he sought to prevent conservative groups and outside money from coalescing around a potential primary opponent.
McCain was particularly concerned about the Club for Growth, the anti-tax, anti-spending organization. It has been involved in many Republican primaries, and in May helped defeat Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) in his bid for re-nomination.
McCain sought out leaders of the organization. He knew they might still be unhappy about his vote against the Bush tax cuts and disagreed with him on campaign finance reform. But he argued that, under Obama, government spending was now the big issue, and said that on that issue he had a solid conservative record compatible with theirs.
McCain also knew that Hayworth was handicapped in portraying himself as a small-government conservative because of his record of supporting earmarks as a member of the House. McCain attacked Hayworth as a pork-barrel spender and lobbyist, challenging his posture as a Washington outsider. The Club for Growth stayed out of Arizona.
"McCain took Hayworth very seriously very early in ways that other presumptive winners didn't," said one conservative strategist who declined to be identified in order to speak candidly. "If Bob Bennett had McCain's political instincts, he might have been able to save himself."
Immigration remained a potential stumbling block for the senator, who had championed comprehensive immigration reform during the Bush administration.
In the spring, the immigration issue flared anew in Arizona when a man was shot and killed in a remote area of his ranch, in the southeastern part of the state. Soon after, McCain and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) unveiled a 10-point border-security package that included a call for 3,000 more National Guard troops deployed to the border. He also embraced Arizona's new immigration law, which the Justice Department has challenged.
McCain's toughened stance was memorably captured in a campaign commercial in which he tells the sheriff of Pinal County that it is time to "complete the danged fence" along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The final blow to Hayworth came in June. McCain's campaign aired a television commercial blasting the challenger for appearing in an infomercial filmed in 2007 for a company that was promoting questionable seminars touting free government grants to individuals. "Huckster?" McCain's ad asked after showing Hayworth's pitch.
McCain outspent Hayworth, pouring more than $20 million into the campaign to his opponent's estimated $3 million.
The Democratic Senate nomination campaign in Florida has been mostly overshadowed for months by the saga of Gov. Charlie Crist, who decided to quit the Republican primary race and run as an independent after he fell behind conservative tea party favorite Marco Rubio.
Meek suffered from a lack of statewide recognition and a lack of money. When Greene got into the race, his free spending quickly raised his profile and his poll numbers. Some Democratic strategists doubted that Meek could overcome Greene's superior resources.
Then the Florida media, led by the St. Petersburg Times, began to hammer Greene. It questioned his real estate dealings and exposed his extravagant lifestyle (including lavish and raucous parties aboard his 145-foot yacht), his hobnobbing with boxer Mike Tyson and his harsh treatment of staff and crew.
In the Republican gubernatorial primary, businessman Rick Scott has spent almost $40 million against McCollum. But McCollum has been aided by some outside groups, and the Republican Governors Association, which is technically neutral, issued an unusual public rebuke of Scott for misrepresenting McCollum's views.
Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, described the spending by Greene and Scott as "money madness" gone awry.
"People are saying, 'Why are they spending all this money to be a senator or governor, and is it right?' " she said.