Arizona Wranglers: McCain vs. Hayworth

I just got off the phone with the cheerfully overcaffeinated J. D. Hayworth, the former congressman who is challenging Sen. John McCain for the GOP Senate nomination in Arizona. "I love John and so do most people here," Hayworth told me. "But it's time for a new generation of conservative leadership here and across the country. John's been in Washington too long."

Whether a generational pitch can work is an open question. McCain is 73; Hayworth is 51, but McCain is as tough and weathered as beef jerky and still junkyard mean. I'm not sure I wouldn't pick him over the rangy-but-not-quite-ripped Hayworth in a steel-cage death match.

The better question is whether Hayworth can work the outside-inside, right-versus-harder-right game against McCain. Brute survival is what McCain's life saga is all about, and he has been methodically—shamelessly—moving toward the tea-party crowd from the moment he saw it forming on his horizon in Arizona.

Shrewdly, McCain made it his business to campaign early for Scott Brown in Massachusetts. He and Sarah Palin have established a cold peace, and she is backing his renomination. So is Dick Armey, the former GOP House leader who has become an organizing force at the conservative grassroots in red states.

A decade ago McCain was a centrist and media fave, a seemingly nonideological reformer who ran for president on his war biography, sense of humor and maverick openness. After Barack Obama won the election in 2008, I thought that McCain might offer his services as the young president's Republican go-between in the U.S. Senate.

I never learn; my naiveté continues to embarrass me.

McCain, bitter at his botched campaign and facing a tricky climate at home, wheeled to starboard in a hurry, opposing Obama at almost every turn and tamping down his sometimes brave anticorporate rhetoric. He went on the air with ads quickly and used his muscle with the FCC—or just the threat of it—to force Hayworth to quit his gig as a popular radio talk-show host in Phoenix.

Hayworth's core message in recent years has been about illegal immigration—and he has questioned what used to be McCain's deal-brokering, somewhat benign approach. He still accuses McCain of favoring "amnesty."

But, knowing McCain, I expect to see him out there patrolling the Mexican border with a strapped-on pair of six-shooters before too long—a rootin'-tootin' Yosemite Sam on his way to the next, if not the final, roundup.