McCain's Last Battle: The Maverick Tries to Remake Himself as a Conservative

Article excerpt

THE SCENE OPENS with two men walking down a long dirt road in Nogales, Arizona, near the Mexican border. The camera pans to John McCain, clad in a leather jacket and wearing a Navy baseball cap. McCain begins to enumerate the social disorders afflicting the region: "Drug and human smuggling, home invasions, murder."

"We're outmanned," Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu replies. "Of all the illegals in America, more than half come through Arizona." A concerned look flashing across his face, McCain asks, "Have we got the right plan?" He's referring to the Border Security Action Plan he introduced with his fellow Republican senator from Arizona, Jon Kyl. It would send National Guardsmen to the border, hire 3,000 new Border Patrol agents, and, as McCain put it, "complete the danged fence." "Plan's perfect," the sheriff assures him before signing off, "Senator, you're one of us."

It's just a 30-second television ad, but its message may decide Arizona's Aug. 24 primary for the Republican senatorial nomination. Arizona has become ground zero in the fight over illegal immigration. The legislature has enacted a series of tough new laws aimed at making attrition through enforcement the official state policy, the latest of which controversially allows police officers to ask for proof of legal status when, during the course of their work, they encounter someone they have a "reasonable suspicion" might be illegal.

This law, with its "papers, please" connotations, has set off a national firestorm. In Arizona, one poll showed voters supported it by 70 percent to 23 percent. Jittery moderate Republicans like Gov. Jan Brewer were loath to stand in its way. Now McCain, too, must convince Arizonans, tired of living with the daily consequences of sieve-like borders, that he is with them on the question of illegal immigration.

It will be a tough sell. McCain has for decades been mass immigration's main man in the Senate. A pal of professional open-borders agitators like Juan Hernandez, he spent most of George W. Bush's presidency as the leading Republican supporter of amnesty under the guise of "comprehensive immigration reform." McCain championed such legislation alongside the late liberal Ted Kennedy, carrying water for the immigration lawyers who helped write it.

McCain's amnesty advocacy nearly derailed his 2008 presidential campaign, before the last iteration of McCain-Kennedy was voted down and he began to embrace the enforcement-first position preferred by most Republican primary voters. But one man stands ready to remind Arizonans of McCain's past record: former Congressman J.D. Hayworth, an alumnus of the Republican class of '94 who today challenges McCain for the GOP Senate nomination.

A conservative radio talk-show host and former sportscaster, Hayworth is not afraid to raise his booming voice against McCain's immigration gymnastics. U.S. News and World Report quotes Hayworth calling McCain's commercial "just hilarious." The primary challenger says he will launch a website called "The Danged Truth" contrasting the new Minuteman McCain with the four-term senator's previous positions.

Hayworth isn't the only Republican looking askance at McCain's immigration makeover. MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough laughed out loud after playing McCain's "danged fence" ad on his show. "Brought to you by the guy who brought you Kennedy-McCain," he said. Congressman John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican, was also obviously amused but said politely, "It seems like some politicians have changed ground on this issue."

J.D. Hayworth hasn't changed. Before he was unseated in the Democratic tsunami of 2006, Hayworth was viewed as one of Congress' leading immigration hawks. He even published the book Whatever It Takes: Border Security, Illegal Immigration, and the War on Terror. In fact, his defeat was often cited by amnesty supporters as a data point against the popularity of immigration enforcement. …