Fiery Ariz. conservative challenges John McCain

Mon Feb 15, 2010 2:02pm EST

* J.D. Hayworth served six terms as congressman

* He staunch opponent of illegal immigration

* Experts predict tough, personal fight

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Fiery conservative Republican J.D. Hayworth launched a bid on Monday to run for the U.S. Senate in Arizona, unleashing the most serious challenge yet to incumbent John McCain and highlighting deep divisions in the party, analysts said.

McCain, 73, a war hero who ran against Barack Obama for president in 2008, has a long record of working with Democrats who control an increasingly partisan Congress, alienating conservatives who see him as a maverick not to be trusted.

"What I am hearing from people is that they want a consistent conservative," said Hayworth, 51, a talk radio show host and former U.S. congressman who is appealing to the party's right-wing base in Arizona, which McCain has represented in the Senate since 1986.

"When it comes to the U.S. Senate, he's just been there too long. You have to ask, what has he done in the last decade in Arizona?" he added.

A combative, blustering man, Haywood is best known in the Mexico border state for his thundering opposition to illegal immigration. Elected to the House of Representatives in the 1994 Republican landslide, he served six terms but narrowly lost in 2006 to Democrat Harry Mitchell.

His campaign frames him as an alternative to McCain's "moderate record on taxes, social issues, the border, and bailing out the banks," and finds resonance with increasingly energized conservatives in the state.

"I admire John McCain, he's a war hero, he did some great things, but he's not in touch with what's really going on," said Pam Stevenson, an activist with the Tea Party, a grass-roots conservative group that hopes to make a splash in the 2010 congressional elections and beyond.

"J.D. Hayworth seems to be in more with the people, what the people's needs are, what they really want to do," she said.

McCain was re-elected to a fourth Senate term in 2004 with nearly 77 percent of the vote. He carried Arizona in the 2008 general election despite some predictions that he would lose it to Obama.

He had a 22-percentage-point lead over Hayworth, according to a Rasmussen poll last month, although a previous poll in November put both in a virtual tie.

VICIOUS PRIMARY CONTEST

Analysts expect a tough, personal battle leading up to the August 24 primary that could tear open ideological rifts within the Republican Party.

It "has the potential to be a particularly vicious, muddy primary that could end up being the election that's focused on not only in Arizona but around the country," said Bruce Merrill, a political analyst at Arizona State University.

"There will be a lot of charges that McCain has sold out to special interests, that he's not a real conservative. It could get very personal," he added.

But it is well known that Hayworth had ties to convicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients, receiving money and using Abramoff's sports arena skyboxes. No investigation into Hayworth was ever pursued.

McCain's influence among Republicans is strong in the Senate, where he has taken leading positions on the military and foreign policy. In a Harris Poll last month, he was seen as the most influential player in the Republican Party .

On his side, McCain also has more than $5 million in his war chest to fund a long campaign, together with wide support among veterans, independents and conservative Democrats in Arizona.

"J.D. can launch all the personal attacks he wants to, but the people already have someone they know and can trust," Mike Hellon, McCain's deputy campaign manager told Reuters.

Hayworth told Reuters on Monday he needs $2 million to seriously contend and has begun appealing to supporters.

To secure his right flank, McCain has lined up prominent conservatives to campaign for him in Arizona, including his former running mate Sarah Palin, and Scott Brown, the newly elected senator from Massachusetts.

He has also edged away from some of his more centrist positions such as support for campaign finance reform and closing the detention center at Guantanamo, in a bid to narrow the gap with conservatives.

Hellon believes McCain will win re-election by a comfortable margin, but said he faces the toughest battle of his Senate career.

"He (McCain) takes every race seriously," he said. "This is probably the most energetic and credible opponent he's had since he's been in office."

(Writing and additional reporting by Tim Gaynor; editing by Philip Barbara)

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