Favorite Son?

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POLITICS FEBRUARY 28, 2000

Favorite Son?

Phoenix, Arizona--The outcome of Arizona's February 22 Republican primary isn't in doubt. Although George W. Bush led here last summer, home-state Senator John McCain had surged ahead even before his victory in New Hampshire. Indeed, with the latest polls showing McCain up by almost 20 points, Bush has all but conceded defeat. He has a skeletal staff in the state, and he's run ads only sporadically. Bush's Arizona campaign manager, Mike Hull, doesn't claim that his man will win--just that he'll hold McCain to a smaller-than-usual margin for a favorite son.


But McCain's popularity at the polls overshadows the real story in Arizona: his unpopularity among prominent state Republican officials. Governor Jane Dee Hull (whose son is Bush's campaign manager), top leaders of the state Senate, and the state's best-known law enforcement officer all oppose McCain and support Bush. Hull and the state senators take issue less with McCain's political views than with his style and his accomplishments, or lack thereof. And, while they can't beat him next week--Hull does not command anything resembling a political machine--they could hurt him by using the media attention Arizona will receive to level criticisms most reporters haven't heard. "John McCain hasn't shown he can work with people on a state level," says State Senator Scott Bundgaard, the chairman of the Finance Committee, in the kind of statement that's tailor-made for a Bush TV ad. "Why should we trust him on a national level?"


The opposition to McCain is not ideological. The Arizona GOP is divided into moderate and conservative wings. But McCain's state-level foes, unlike his national critics, come from both wings of the party. Hull and State Senator Ed Cirillo are prominent moderates, while Bundgaard, Senate Majority Leader Rusty Bowers, and Maricopa County Sheriff Joseph Arpaio are well-known conservatives.


Hull's hostility to McCain is particularly telling. She's an outstanding governor, reelected in 1998 with 61 percent of the vote, and is not known for carrying on political vendettas. When asked to explain her reasons for endorsing Bush, she focuses on the Texas governor's strengths rather than on McCain's weaknesses. "Having worked with Governor Bush, I came to feeling very strongly that a governor such as Bush would make a very good president," she says. "I liked the things he did in Texas with children, health care, and education." But later in the interview her criticism of McCain starts to show through. "When you are president," she says, "you have to build consensus, and Governor Bush would be better at that. When you are a senator or a congressman, you either build coalitions to get your policies through or you vote yes and no." When I ask her whether McCain is the kind of politician who just votes, she assents.


People close to Hull say she has also been alienated by McCain's "bullying tactics." Hull experienced such bullying firsthand when she replaced Fife Symington, who resigned amid scandal in 1997, and she didn't hire any McCain allies as aides. Hull has said McCain tried to make her fire one of her chief staffers. "She doesn't like McCain , and she doesn't like the people around him, and she likes George Bush's governing style," says one source familiar with the situation. "The relationship has never been good. McCain was close to Fife Symington . When Jane took over from Fife, that wasn't handled the way that McCain wanted. In her speech declaring her support for Bush, she said, 'I am supporting a gentleman who ...'--the operative word was 'gentleman.'"


In the state senate, three key Republicans support Bush: Bundgaard, a rising star; Bowers, the majority leader; and Tom Smith, chairman of the Rules Committee. In a discussion in Bowers's office, all three readily admitted their dislike of McCain. Bowers, a tall, balding fourth-generation Arizonan, faults McCain for his inattention to his home state. "Have you heard of Carl Hayden and Mo Udall?" he asks me. "When you think of people like that who served for extensive periods of time, you can also go back and ask what did they do for Arizona. They did lots! When we look at our senior senator, we are thinking, 'What happened?' He has brought us igra, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which is a disaster. I can't think of another thing that will affect Arizonans. Water is the West, but where is McCain? He is a non-presence." Adds Bundgaard, "They say he has seventeen years of experience. In seventeen years we have racked our brain to think of anything he has done. "


McCain can say this shows he's not your typical porkbarrel senator, but it's his lack of interest in state and Western issues, not a lack of favors and perks, that concerns his critics. Arizona Republicans also question McCain's vaunted integrity. Some complain about his past friends, like the fallen financier Charles Keating, and his current associates, like hardball political consultants Wes Gullett and Charles Coughlin, whom they charge with using "scorched earth" tactics against Republicans who don't toe McCain's line. McCain's critics also protest that his campaign finance reform crusade is disingenuous. They believe that McCain--who first won office with generous financial support from Symington, Keating, and his father-in-law, beer magnate Jim Hensley--lacks credibility on his signature issue. As late as 1998, McCain refused to back a state campaign finance reform initiative, Proposition 200, that many Arizona Republicans supported and that passed 51 to 49 percent. "I absolutely feel it is hypocrisy," says Bowers. "Does John McCain turn down contributions from corporate PACs?" McCain critics also cite the favors he has done on the Commerce Committee for businesses that have contributed to his campaigns. Asks one Phoenix Republican, "Why did he want to become chairman of the Commerce Committee? Everyone knows what being chairman gets you."


McCain's Arizona critics don't buy the Bush campaign's argument that he's a liberal in disguise. But they think the truth is just as bad--that McCain is concealing his conservative convictions to curry favor among independent voters in the primaries. "The American Conservative Union has actually rated him as a conservative," says Bundgaard. "His voting record shows that he has voted conservatively. However, my concern is his hypocrisy throughout his campaign. He is attacking Bush from the left."


Listen for a while to McCain's Arizona detractors, and you detect a strange echo. While they couch their criticisms in the language of issues, what people like Bundgaard, Smith, and Bowers really care about is McCain's style--which is exactly what McCain's admirers care about. But, for the Arizona Republicans, "McCain's style" means berating politicians with whom he disagrees--whether in a primary challenge to Symington in 1994 or McCain's endorsement of Phil Gramm for president in 1996. One McCain protege, former Attorney General Grant Woods, became a detractor when McCain, according to Woods, pressured him to end his prosecution of Symington. A former state senator says McCain still resents her for backing a rival in his first congressional contest, in 1982: "Those people who didn't support him were forever on the outside. McCain won fairly handily, but he never forgave us. That is where Jane Hull is. We are always 'those people.'"


It is tempting to dismiss these complaints as naive. Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson also had volcanic tempers, and they also bullied people to get things done. But there's the rub: They got things done. Clinton and Johnson were deal-makers--they demanded loyalty and they doled out rewards. McCain's critics don't believe they have gotten anything from him. And, when they disagree with McCain, they feel that he attacks them for insubordination--an attitude more akin to the military than to politics. It's a different, and more compelling, version of McCain's "temperament problem." "I don't think his military background would lend itself to the White House," says Smith, a 24-year Marine Corps veteran.

McCain, of course, enjoys support from other state politicians. He is backed by his Senate colleague, Jon Kyl, by four of Arizona's five GOP congressmen, and by the speaker of the Arizona House. But it's rare for a presidential candidate not to enjoy virtual unanimity among the party officials in his home state. Look at the way Tennesseans, including McCain's close friend Senator Fred Thompson, lined up behind long shot Lamar Alexander. When a politician like McCain or Bill Bradley arouses opposition at home, it usually says something about his leadership ability. And leadership--more than a detailed policy agenda--is what the straight-talking former fighter pilot is selling. If Republicans in McCain's home state say he doesn't have it, and the national media listens, the Arizona primary could turn into a victory for Bush, regardless of what the election returns say.

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