John McCain: trouble in his own backyard

Republican presidential candidate U.S. Senator John McCain
REUTERS/Joshua Lott
Republican presidential candidate John McCain, center, speaks as his wife, Cindy, and Sen. Joe Leiberman listen at a rally earlier this week in Charleston, S.C.

PHOENIX, ARIZ. — Plodding through stop-and-go traffic on E. Shea Boulevard in northeast Phoenix, one could be forgiven for thinking Ron Paul was going to become the next president of the United States of America. His campaign signs crop up every few hundred feet on this stretch of road just east of Hwy. 51, affixed to storefronts and the outer fences of condo communities. There’s a certain don’t-tread-on-me wealth on display here, with perfectly manicured shopping plazas and thoroughfares populated by Desperate Housewives-types in little red Corvettes and New Money dudes in full Blue Tooth-and-Beamer opulence. The locals like Paul.

The fringe Republican congressman from Texas apparently speaks to a relatively wide segment of conservatives, which is no longer news except for one notable point here: It’s McCain country. That is, it’s Arizona legislative District 11, which is McCain’s home district. And here, in a confluence of Phoenix, Paradise Valley and Scottsdale, McCain has managed to make his neighbors angry. Very angry.

“We put a fatwah out on censuring McCain in summer 2005,” Rob Haney, GOP chair of District 11, said Tuesday morning. “It passed.”

Haney’s wife, Marne, wanted to make it clear that her husband was joking about using “fatwah,” but Rob clearly was not joking about the symbolic censure. In fact, over the course of the last few years, you could say Haney has become the hometown thorn in McCain’s side.

“That’s safe to say,” Haney confirmed.

The Haneys are not alone. In fact, among those true local conservatives who do not count themselves as RINOs (that’s Republican In Name Only), McCain is as bad to them as — gasp! — the dreaded Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“Electing McCain is tantamount to electing Hillary,” Rob Haney said. “What’s the difference?”

Rob is short, cherubic and even polite. Marne is energetic and sharp-witted. They spoke in the back room of a Paradise Bakery, a chain of yup-scale mega-cafes that has spread throughout Arizona like the proverbial wildfire.

Rob is a 66-year-old retiree, initially from Pennsylvania, who worked for IBM for 30 years and settled with Marne, a 63-year-old retired occupational therapist, in this neck of Phoenix in 1971. Both served in the Air Force, and consider themselves good Catholics. And though neither fits the archetype of the frothing-at-the-mouth-social-fiscal conservative, the Haneys are the vaunted Republican base. And McCain has lost them, big time.

Among Rob Haney’s list of grievances: McCain favored stem-cell research on fetal tissue — with taxpayer money no less; his campaign-finance reform bill limited free speech, especially for anti-abortion groups that wanted to run issue ads; he opposed oil-drilling in Alaska, which furthered a dependence on foreign oil and weakened U.S. national defense; McCain wanted to close a loophole that allowed gun owners to sell their wares at gun shows across the country; McCain is profane and has a “coarse” sense of humor. And, oh yes, immigration, immigration, immigration.

“Anything that Republicans tried to do as a core issue, he blocked at the caucus level,” Haney said of McCain. The problem being that McCain isn’t conservative enough.

Rocky road leading to Arizona’s primary
With Romney eeking out a win Tuesday in his home state, where his father was a popular governor, the Republican race seems to be more a game of musical chairs than ever. In fact, some pundits believe Michigan puts the ball firmly back in Romney’s court.

But McCain’s strong second-place showing leaves his comeback in pretty good shape overall. A Monday New York Times/CBS News poll showed McCain had the highest “favorable” rate of any Republican candidate among Republican voters at 57 percent, up 20 percent from the first week in December. And a USA Today/Gallup poll published Tuesday indicated that McCain would defeat Clinton and Barack Obama in head-to-head matchups, a new sign of strength from any Republican.

Still, Romney’s victory in Michigan might have given him something that Arizona might not give McCain: a win on his turf.

Oh, even Rob Haney doesn’t really believe the last Rocky Mountain Poll, (PDF) released in November, that showed Rudy Giuliani tracking ahead of the Arizona senator. “I do believe McCain will win in the primary,” Haney said, even though there was a hope it wasn’t true. “But that’s just because we’ve split the ticket.” Still, with a significant Mormon population in northern parts of the state aligning with Romney, an apparent affinity for Ron Paul in some circles, and folks like the Haneys throwing their support behind Duncan Hunter, a McCain loss … well, maybe.

But leading up to and beyond Feb. 5 (can we drop the “Super-Duper Tuesday” stuff already?), Haney and his ilk in the Arizona Republican Party will do all they can to stop candidate McCain. They can gripe all they want about guns, God and abortion, but what irks Haney most about McCain is that he represents what he refers to repeatedly as the “Republican hierarchy.”

“There was a moment that really crystallized the Republican hierarchy for the grassroots,” Haney recalled. That would be McCain’s opposition to a state ballot measure called Prop 200 in 2004. Prop 200 purported to limit services for undocumented immigrants and required IDs to vote. Though it was a state initiative, McCain strongly voiced his opposition, to no avail, alienating the staunch nativists who had been suspicious of him all along.

Then the censure came, making its way to the top of the state’s GOP boards and committees. Eventually McCain put together a slate of candidates — and raised a reported $20,000 through a PAC, $8,000 of which came from two San Francisco Democrats — to rid the local party of folks like Haney. McCain’s slate lost resoundingly in autumn 2006.

‘A professional at triangulation’
Petty party politics, to be sure, but indicative of a strong distaste for McCain. But also of something else, according to Haney: “If he would go to that length to get people on the state party level, what does that say about what he would do with international affairs, national security and a true crisis?”

McCain has since gained no friends among his brethren in the party. Last year, a straw poll among Republicans in Maricopa County — the state’s largest — cited McCain as the most “unacceptable” candidate. The notion that McCain might simply be positioning himself for the general electorate — and framing himself as the only viable conservative candidate — is unimpressive to Haney.

“He’s a professional at triangulation,” Haney said dismissively. “He could teach Bill Clinton a lesson about falling on both sides of an issue to broaden his base.”

And if that gets McCain through primary season and secures his party’s nomination, the Haneys foresee bad things coming to the senator from Arizona on Election Day. “It will be a sign, a message, like when Al Gore lost Tennessee in 2000,” Marne Haney said.

“It’s good news for whoever runs against him in the general election,” Rob chimed in. “The base of the party needs to be energized. Whoever comes out on the Democrat side will energize their base and the independents might come out for that candidate.”

And though McCain might draw the interest of a slice of moderate Democrats, he is widely reviled by Arizona lefties.

Of course, the bigger problem for McCain would be the alienated, apathetic enemy within. “The base of the party could never go out and campaign for McCain,” Haney concluded. “They may end up just staying home.”

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