McCain’s Awkward Gamble Could Pay Off in Next Month's Primary

It’s too early to call the results of the Arizona GOP primary next month, but if a new series of polls offers any indication, Sen. John McCain may be poised to escape this one. McCain now leads opponent J. D. Hayworth by an impressive 20 percent. Still not a sure thing, but also not shabby for a month before the voting.

McCain panicked earlier this year when Hayworth, who stands substantially further to the right of the senator, threw himself into the race, depriving McCain of his maverick mojo. And for a while, it appeared that McCain’s awkwardly fast shift to his party's extreme could end up being fatal to his career, especially after a series of unflattering profiles strung together a number of vignettes to reveal a former warrior so obviously willing to sacrifice his principles to keep his job.

So how did McCain do it? Part of it was that he showed the state the money. McCain so far has put $16 million into the race, outspending Hayworth almost 10-fold. In a state that gets lots of national attention, messaging matters; and he who spends more usually dominates the airwaves and cable news channels. Ergo, point to McCain.

But there may be another reason the former presidential candidate has new life. Sure, he’s been mocked and ridiculed for his fast-changing principles (the fallout from his “finish the danged fence” campaign ad comes to mind), but making it so obvious may have actually helped him. Why? Because by swinging so forcefully to the right, he certainly picked up some right-wing voters. But by doing it so overtly, he probably didn’t fool his more centrist base either. In other words, the people who love McCain the Maverick know he’ll be back, while the folks on the far right have warmed up to the powerful and high-ranking centrist now that he’s speaking their language.

The maverick mantle, which McCain claimed in 2008 before disavowing it to NEWSWEEK in April, has become synonymous with being a centrist—someone straddling the middle line, beholden to neither party. But perhaps everyone forgot what it really means: a lone thinker, someone who keeps everyone guessing. Pulling out a win in next month’s primary may show that flirting with the right could turn out to be the most mavericky thing McCain’s ever done.

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