For a senator who consistently gets 80 percent approval ratings from Arizonans, it seems strange, bizarre even, that John McCain would not be a shoo-in to win his home state in November’s presidential election. Some in-state analysts say chances are fair, in fact, that Arizona will end up in the Democratic column.

A big part of the uncertainty may be that the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee has not distanced himself enough from the Bush administration to satisfy the one-third of state voters who are independents. But Senator McCain has also seen his support erode among Arizona’s avid Bush supporters and social conservatives, for not backing the president on issues dear to their hearts. Toss in the resources and clout of Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, who will be pulling hard for her party’s nominee, and anything can happen.

“The simple conclusion for Arizona is that this could be a competitive state,” says Earl de Berge, director of the Behavior Research Center, which conducts the Rocky Mountain Poll. “As presidential material, with him so closely aligned to the mainstream right-wing politics of the White House, he doesn’t have the types of numbers we would expect to see.”

The latest Rocky Mountain Poll, conducted before Democrats settled on Sen. Barack Obama as their candidate, shows McCain winning Arizona over the Illinois senator by 11 percentage points. But in the same poll released May 24, fewer than 4 in 10 Arizonans said they see McCain as the best candidate to deal with two top issues: exiting Iraq and reviving the U.S. economy.

Rugged individualism and a “can-do” spirit are embedded in the DNA of the American Southwest, including Arizona – and they are characteristics that seem a match for McCain’s own.

But the state, among the fastest growing in the U.S., has changed with the influx of newcomers who hold views that are not as grounded in the rock-ribbed conservatism of Arizona’s Barry Goldwater days. That makes politics here less predictable than in the past: In 1996, Arizonans voted for Bill Clinton, the first time they’d chosen a Democrat for president since Harry Truman won here in 1948. They swung back to the Republican side in 2000 and 2004, but in 2006’s congressional elections they handed two GOP seats to the Democrats.

Moreover, there’s some residual disaffection for McCain within the Republican Party here, say political observers.

The religious right, in particular, doesn’t like that he voted against President Bush’s tax cuts, pressed hard for campaign-finance reform that they see as curtailing political free speech, and backed an immigration measure that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and a guest-worker program. Some say he’s a “show horse” in the Senate, not a “workhorse,” especially since his first presidential run, citing a low vote-casting record. (He’s skipped almost 61 percent of floor votes in the current 110th Congress, a time when he’s been on the campaign trail. In the previous three sessions, he missed on average 5.3 percent of floor votes, according to a Washington Post online database.) Others point to his temper and a stubborn streak.

“He’s got a real problem with the social conservatives and die-hard Bush supporters,” says David Berman, a senior research fellow with Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute. “Contrary to his claims that he doesn’t have a bad temper, he’s blown up at quite a few people here. He doesn’t tolerate fools easily.”

“On the other hand,” Dr. Berman adds, “he has so much appeal with moderate Republicans, Democrats, and even independents that he doesn’t need that base for a statewide vote.”

McCain’s hard push for office

McCain is like a lot of people who live in Arizona: They were not born here but moved to the state for the climate, work, affordable homes, or Western values.

After his second marriage, to a well-connected heiress to a beer distributorship here, McCain in 1980 moved to Arizona and set out to win a seat in Congress. He and his wife, Cindy, purchased a house in Mesa in 1982, within the First Congressional District, where incumbent Rep. John Rhodes (R) was unexpectedly retiring.

McCain’s first campaign, engineered by top Rhodes consultant Jay Smith, is legendary here.

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