Arizona’s Republican primary may not be until Aug. 24, but as March dawns in the Grand Canyon state former Congressman J.D. Hayworth is working hard to win voter support in his uphill conservative primary challenge to Sen. John McCain.
At the Daisy Café in Litchfield Park outside of Phoenix, Hayworth tried out his stump speech. He began by asking those among the three-dozen or so onlookers who have served in the military to stand and be recognized. Praising their service, he used the opportunity to praise the service of the man he hopes to defeat, John McCain, and the military service of McCain’s two boys currently enlisted.
Though he denies it, Hayworth seems to be trying to neutralize McCain’s military advantage. The McCain family’s military exploits are long and legendary, and Hayworth goes out of the way to make clear he is not diminishing McCain’s service to country in any way by challenging him for his Senate seat. Irrespective of this service, however, Hayworth says its time for Arizonans to say: “Thanks, John. Welcome home.”
On the day I followed him around, Hayworth was making a concerted effort not to attack McCain negatively. Throughout his three town hall meetings on March 1 he liberally used phrases like “to put it politely” and “not to be disrespectful” as he ripped McCain’s record. The reason for this, in part, is that Hayworth understands that he came across as too angry during his failed 2006 bid for re-election to the House.
During that election, the Arizona Republic, a newspaper that had endorsed Hayworth during his six previous elections to Congress, endorsed his opponent, Democrat Harry Mitchell, in a scathing editorial entitled “Mitchell over the bully.”
“He may not yet have reached the point where you can’t take him anywhere, but you certainly can’t take him to a calm, civil discussion,” the editorial read. “During this past term, Hayworth has devolved from a windy and sometimes cartoonish politician into an angry demagogue.”
This time, Hayworth is steering away from anger and embracing a strategy lifted from the Bible in his race against Arizona’s senior senator, “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Well over six feet tall and with a frame that reminds one of the college football player he once was, Hayworth is an affable figure with a booming voice. Before being swept into Congress with the Republican wave in 1994, he was a sports broadcaster. After his 2006 defeat for reelection, he hosted a talk radio show on Phoenix radio station KFYI. Given his background, it is no surprise that Hayworth feels at home in front of an audience. A showman, he does impressions of Jay Leno, Tip O’Neill, Ronald Reagan and Charlie Rangel during his town hall meetings. Hayworth likes to talk, a point he readily admits to audiences in his campaign stops. In 2006, he won second place for “biggest windbag” in the House of Representatives in Washingtonian’s Best and Worst of Congress issue.
It is on the issues that Hayworth believes he can take down McCain. It is not a secret that John McCain is no doctrinaire conservative. In contrast, Hayworth calls himself the “consistent conservative” and he points to issues like McCain’s votes against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, his support for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which Hayworth calls “amnesty,” and his vote for bank bailouts as out of touch with the conservative base in Arizona.
Hayworth also differentiates himself from McCain on war on terror policy. While McCain has voiced support for closing down the terrorist detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and stated his opposition to the enhanced interrogation methods, which he considers torture, Hayworth has staked out the opposite positions. In fact, Hayworth goes even further, claiming that McCain’s position on these important issues has enabled what he sees as Obama’s radical war on terror polices.
“It may not have been John’s intent,” Hayworth says, employing his passive-aggressive strategy toward McCain, “but the net result is — for lack of a better term — he has been an enabler of an Obama policy that I think is far more harmful and far more radical than something John intended.”
On the issues, the crowd at Daisy Café, and at the two other country club venues Hayworth spoke at in Sun City and Peoria during the day, largely like what they hear from Hayworth.
“He is the most intelligent man in Arizona,” Patsy Denne told me after the Daisy Café event concluded. “He knows the Constitution better than anybody in Arizona.”
Others said they liked Hayworth because of his tough immigration stance which can be summed up by his the title of his book on the subject, “Whatever it Takes.” This, of course, stands in contrast to McCain’s support of Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Some attendees at the Peoria town hall Hayworth attends later in the day tell me that McCain is just too liberal and has been in the Senate too long.
“He’s been there too long,” said Dick Heye.
“He’s only a Republican when he is in Arizona,” said Don Boydston, another Peoria town hall attendee.
Most of the people expressing condemnation of McCain and their intent to vote for Hayworth said they previously voted for McCain in past elections. But not everyone at the March 1 town halls was enamored with Hayworth.
Jeremy Vaught, who attended the town hall at Daisy Café, thought that Hayworth’s talk was pretty good, but he believes the former congressman didn’t fight the growth of government when he had his chance in Congress during the Bush years. He also thinks that McCain is “the most effective voice on the right in fighting against Obama’s leftist agenda,” which is why he is leaning towards supporting McCain in the primary.
Talk show host Bill Bennett, who recently endorsed McCain for reelection, expressed a similar sentiment on his radio show. While Bennett conceded that on paper Hayworth’s views are closer to his own than McCain’s, he is supporting McCain because “he is the man who stands in the breach” on crucial issues of importance like Iraq. Other political celebrities like Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Grover Norquist have also come out in support of McCain. For Hayworth’s part, he has received endorsements from the likes of radio talk show host Mark Levin, Minute Men Civil Defense Corps co-founder Chris Simcox and tough-as-nails Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
McCain is not taking Hayworth’s challenge lightly. He has launched a series of campaign ads attacking his challenger, including one tying Hayworth to the wacky movement questioning whether Obama was born in the United States and thus eligible to be president.
After interviews on cable news shows where he gave credence and legitimacy to those questioning Obama’s citizenship, Hayworth has opted to try to steer clear of the topic. When asked by The Daily Caller if he questioned Obama’s legitimacy, Hayworth now firmly said no.
“I have no reason to believe that the data we’ve seen that he was born in Hawaii is not true. I happen to believe he is a citizen and he is certainly president of the United States,” Hayworth said. “I’ve got problems with Mr. Obama as president, not imagined stories of his eligibility.”
This is a new line for Hayworth, who is clearly backpedaling since he suggested to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in late January that the birthers had legitimate concerns. “Well, gosh, we all had to bring our birth certificates to show we were who we said we were, and we were the age we said we were, to play football in youth sports,” Hayworth said then. “Shouldn’t we know exactly that anyone who wants to run for public office is a natural born citizen of the United States, and is who they say they are?”
Hayworth even brought one of the chief proponents of birtherism, Orly Taitz, on his radio show in July 2009. During the interview, he did not once challenge what she was saying. He praised her as a “legal crusader” taking on the “ultimate legal challenge.” Hayworth argues he was just giving “her a platform to speak.” It is hard to imagine that the man who was once voted the No. 2 loudmouth in Congress regularly gave guests he disagrees with such wide latitude on his radio show, or for that matter, that he regularly gave platforms to people who supported topics he found outlandish.
Though Hayworth avoids most of the more reactionary and delusional rhetoric of the conservative fringes during his town hall meetings, in his interview with The Daily Caller he was looser lipped. When asked whether he saw any parallels between President Obama and aspiring leftist dictator Hugo Chavez, Hayworth said yes.
“Newsweek luminary Mr. [Jon] Meacham has written about Winston [Churchill] and Franklin [Roosevelt] and their relationship,” Hayworth said. “Well, you know, why do I get the sense, you know, based on that meeting between Hugo Chavez and President Obama that there was that kind of affection and friendship and affability. I don’t think national interests are well served by that at all. And that personal affinity must reflect some sort of philosophical synergy.”
In an extensive interview with a hoarse Hayworth after the last of his town hall meetings, Hayworth reflected further on where he stands on key issues and how he differentiates himself from McCain.
On health care, Hayworth conceded that McCain gave some good speeches, but said he “would have taken much more assertive action beyond speeches.” The more assertive action to which Hayworth referred is a point he dramatically emphasizes during town hall meetings. In essence, the difference between McCain and Hayworth on health care is that Hayworth would have forced the 2,000-plus page Senate health-care bill to be read aloud on the Senate floor. Hayworth seems to think that this is a major contrast.
Asked whether he supports the Afghan surge, Hayworth said he believes, “it would be wise to remember the Eisenhower doctrine.”
“And one of the principle components is that once the decision to utilize force is made there is no such thing as a little force. Force must be overwhelming and, yes, even brutal to achieve the desired ends,” he said.
When I ask whether he then opposes General Stanley McChrystal’s strategy in Afghanistan, which in part calls for American troops to take more risks in order to minimize Afghan civilian casualties, Hayworth equivocated.
“General McChrystal is the general in the field,” he said. “What I worry about is the growing, for lack of a better term, litigiousness of war fighting. I don’t want to see rules of engagement so limited that American forces under attack are having to defer to military attorneys.”
On what he would do to deal with Iran, Hayworth says he doesn’t think it is useful to spell it out.
“On these sensitive issues of national security that may require — how can we put this delicately? — international initiatives I don’t know that a full public discussion of the whys and wherefores to dissuade the Iranians or perhaps diminish the Iranians capacity to gain nuclear weapons, I don’t know of a full public discussion of strategies A to Z are necessarily wise at this point and time.” he said. “It may in fact become a moot point based on what we are seeing from Israel.”
During his town hall meetings, Hayworth attacked the idea of McCain as a deficit hawk who has assiduously fought against earmarks. But he himself has spending issues to answer for. Asked whether he regrets voting for the Medicare Prescription Drug bill, which McCain opposed and is, by some estimates, an $8 trillion or more unfunded liability, Hayworth staunchly defended the vote.
“There is an inherent risk now that it has become apart of Obamaland they will go away from our market base reforms,” Hayworth said. “I think in the fullness of time we will actually see cost savings according to the estimates I’ve seen.”
It is hard to say at this point whether Hayworth has a legitimate chance of knocking off McCain for Arizona’s Republican Senate nomination. McCain will certainly have a huge money advantage, but Hayworth noted, tongue-in-cheek, that he is fortunate because he hears some of the same staffers who worked on McCain’s presidential race in 2008 will be working on his Senate race this time around.
A Rasmussen poll in November before Hayworth entered the race had McCain and Hayworth neck-and-neck. A more recent January Rasmussen poll, however, showed McCain with a 20-plus point advantage over Hayworth. But in one of the most unpredictable election years, it is certainly no sure thing that the Republican nominee for president in 2008 will be able to win the Republican nomination for the Senate seat he has held for 24 years in 2010.
Jamie Weinstein is a columnist for The North Star National. He can be reached through is blog, www.JamieWeinstein.com