The same John McCain who is known in Washington as a maverick independent and a bur under the saddle of the Senate Republican leadership has a very different reputation here at home in Arizona.
In the last two decades, political figures here say, McCain has used his muscle in an attempt to make himself the man in charge of the Arizona GOP, exploiting the weight of his office, a penchant for personal tongue-lashing and the hardball tactics of his controversial political aides in an effort to control an unruly set of fellow Republicans.
Now, as he faces a vital challenge in securing home-state support for his presidential bid, McCain is running into resistance from some of those he has offended in the past. A number of them have signed up with Texas Gov. George W. Bush or publisher Steve Forbes, posing a threat of a devastating defeat for McCain or an embarrassing squeaker win in the Feb. 22 Arizona primary.
The irony for McCain is that as his campaign has gained support in the leadoff primary in New Hampshire, he is showing signs of vulnerability where he ought to be strong. "John is weakest," one longtime but now estranged political associate said, "where they know him best--in the Senate and at home."
McCain has some avid supporters at home. Every Republican in the Arizona congressional delegation is backing him, as are most of the Republicans in the legislature. Republican mayors and county supervisors are equally solid, McCain said.
But on Capitol Hill, the increasingly public criticism from some fellow senators in both parties is that McCain has pushed his disagreements on issues large and small into unpleasant personal confrontations. Here in his home state, the complaint is that he has been intolerant of dissent and has used rough tactics to retaliate against those who defied him.
The principal public witness is Republican Gov. Jane Dee Hull, who said in an interview last week, "I think there are a lot of people like myself in the community, well-respected citizens who have been here a long time, who are privy to John's temper and who are supporting Bush. Whether it's payback or not, they're just a lot more comfortable with Bush."
Hull endorsed Bush weeks ago, and her son and 1998 campaign manager, Mike Hull, is in charge of Bush's Arizona operations. With early polls showing Bush in a statistical dead heat with McCain, the governor said, "Bush can win here. When you've been around as long as John has, you've got detractors. He's made enemies."
Despite her support for Bush, who held two fund-raisers for her last year and whose handling of border issues with Mexico she says she greatly admires, Hull acknowledges that McCain's intervention last year helped spare her from a serious primary challenge. "He made a couple phone calls" to dissuade Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) from challenging her when her hold on the office, which she had inherited just a year before, was still shaky. "I deeply appreciated it, as I did the hundreds of others who did the same thing," she said.
McCain commented that he had such conversations not only with Salmon, but also with state Sen. Tom C. Patterson, and that he gave Hull both a public endorsement and his list of campaign contributors.
There are plenty of veteran GOP figures who have crossed McCain and have found him anything but angry. The manager of the Forbes campaign here, Bert Coleman, led the Forbes effort in 1996 that defeated McCain's choice, Robert J. Dole, and Patrick J. Buchanan.
"If there was ever a time he'd have blown up at me," Coleman said last week, "it was after we beat Dole here in '96, because John had publicly predicted a Dole win. But I saw him a few days later and all he said was, 'You guys did a damn good job.' "
Others have had different experiences. Barbara Barrett, a Reagan administration aviation official who incurred McCain's wrath by challenging his close ally, then-Gov. Fife Symington, in the 1994 gubernatorial primary, has told friends McCain threatened her political future if she did not quit the race. McCain said, "I may have spoken strongly with her, but I certainly never threatened political reprisals." Barrett has given Forbes her strong backing in both 1996 and the current campaign.
One of Barrett's key supporters in 1994, the elected Maricopa County (Phoenix) superintendent of schools, Sandra Dowling, had what eyewitnesses describe as a very angry confrontation with McCain, complete with curses and threats, in public view on the floor of the Republican state convention that year. In her next race, Dowling found herself with an opponent, Carol Crockett, who received fund-raising help and an endorsement from McCain.
McCain said that in their public altercation, "I am sure I said some things I shouldn't have, and I regret that." But he said that his support of Crockett reflected his belief she was a better qualified candidate and that it "was not an act of retaliation." This year, Dowling endorsed former vice president Dan Quayle, and she has remained neutral since Quayle's withdrawal.
McCain's support for Dowling's opponent was part of a pattern of activist intervention in other people's primaries that few other senators follow. For the most part, senators try to preserve good relations with all factions in their home-state parties, hoping to have everyone's help when they come up for reelection every six years.
But Grant Woods, McCain's first chief of staff, said, "I think from the beginning John wanted to play a key role in the state GOP. He was always interested in anything that could affect him in any way. The idea that something was minutiae was not his way."
McCain stepped into a political vacuum when he was elected to the House in 1982. Barry Goldwater, who had virtually founded the Arizona Republican Party in 1952, was 73 and only four years away from the retirement that would allow McCain to become his Senate successor. Democrat Bruce Babbitt was governor, and Democrat Dennis DeConcini held the other Senate seat.
McCain commented Friday, "Our party has been fractured a couple times, and I have felt strongly I should encourage good people to run for public office. I haven't been shy about doing that."
J. Brian Smith, McCain's political consultant and media adviser in his first race and all but the most recent subsequent campaigns, said McCain tried to stay out of other Republican primaries for a time. But in 1986, when he was running for the Senate for the first time, McCain also campaigned for state House Majority Leader Burton Barr, who lost the Republican gubernatorial primary to conservative Evan Mecham. After the primary, McCain noted, "I campaigned all over Arizona with Mecham."
Two years later, McCain found himself deeply involved in a crisis over Mecham's tenure as governor. Four months before Mecham was impeached and removed from office by the Arizona legislature for obstruction of justice and misuse of public funds, McCain led three other Republicans in the congressional delegation in calling for Mecham's resignation.
And McCain's people, led by his longtime consultant Jay Smith, worked actively to nominate Symington in 1990, blocking Mecham's comeback attempt. When Symington was elected, he named Wes Gullett, who had been McCain's state director, as his new chief of staff. At the same time, Gullett's wife, Deb, moved out from McCain's Senate office to head his Arizona operations.
In this decade, McCain and both Gulletts have been deeply involved in divisive battles inside the Republican Party, down to and including races for the Phoenix City Council. The feuds mainly involve political insiders, but in recent weeks, the Arizona Republic, the state's largest newspaper, has publicized some of them in an editorial, a long news story and two columns. The pieces, all highlighting examples of McCain's temper, have provoked a flood of letters defending and criticizing him.
McCain also has quarreled bitterly with Woods, his first chief of staff. Several sources attributed the blowup to Woods's work as Arizona attorney general with federal prosecutors who were investigating Symington's financial affairs. McCain said they fell out over Indian gaming issues and "exchanged very strong words because I did not think he was handling the issue correctly. It had nothing to do with Symington."
A federal jury in 1997 convicted Symington of seven felony counts of bank fraud and wire fraud involving financial statements he had filed as a private developer. Symington resigned from office. Last June, the convictions were reversed on appeal.
In this primary, Woods, who is host of a radio talk show, is publicly neutral, but his wife, Marlene Galan, is campaigning for Bush in the Hispanic community.
Yet another controversial figure in the McCain circle is Arizona House Speaker Jeff Groscost, 38, who went onto McCain's payroll earlier this year as a $7,000-a-month consultant to his presidential campaign, organizing other legislators and their supporters for McCain.
Groscost has a long history of ethics controversies, including some in the area of campaign finance, where McCain has been perhaps the most vocal advocate of reform legislation in the Senate. Under pressure of a threatened investigation because of repeated late filings of his campaign finance reports, Groscost stepped down in 1995 as majority whip, only to win the speakership at the end of 1997.
According to the Associated Press, Groscost had consulting contracts for at least $10,000 each with Arizona business and trade associations that had legislation pending before the House. He denied any conflict of interest, but Dennis Burke, the head of Arizona Common Cause, said the arrangements were "wildly inappropriate."
McCain said Friday that when he hired Groscost, "I was not aware of any significant problems that he had, and I am still not aware."
Gov. Hull's political differences with McCain go back to the 1982 primary for the House seat left vacant by the retirement of Rep. John Rhodes, then the House minority leader. McCain was a newcomer to Arizona, having moved to the home state of his new wife after his retirement from the Navy. Hull made no endorsement in the race but allowed her name to be used on an invitation to a fund-raiser in her area for a colleague in the state House, Donna Carlson-West. "It had nothing to do with John McCain," she said last week. "It was simply my resentment that two male state senators in the race were getting all the breaks, and Donna was getting no help."
As she rose to be speaker of the Arizona House and secretary of state, Hull said, she had little direct communication with McCain. But when Symington was forced to resign and she moved up to be governor (Arizona has no lieutenant governor and her office was next in succession), the tension rose. Hull cleaned house of the Symington people, some of whom were also McCain staff alumni. She also found "I didn't have much time to communicate with him [McCain]," as Symington always had done on policy decisions in which the senator might have an interest.
"There is no great philosophical difference between us," Hull said. "If you'd leave John and me alone, we would be fine. Our problem has always been more of a staff problem."
Hull allies say the Gullets and other McCain aides "have been vicious in their comments about her," and the McCain aides are equally disparaging about her chief of staff, Rick Collins. Hull said McCain had pressured her to fire Collins--a statement McCain called "totally inaccurate." And she in turn said in the interview last week that his hiring of Groscost was "inappropriate."
Asked if she would worry about McCain becoming president, the governor replied, "I would worry about who he surrounded himself with. If you interview people around here, you will find John's temper has exploded and pushed a lot of people away, just as it has a lot of senators."
McCain commented, "I am sure in 17 years in public office, I have made some people angry and a few of them bear grudges. But 70 percent of the people I have represented supported me in my last election, so you need to put it in context."