Post-Election Analysis, Pre-Election

Where to find Arizona’s primary story so far

It’s primary day in the Grand Canyon state tomorrow, and no one’s exactly riveted. All eyes are on a senate Republican primary that’s pretty much sewn up, with incumbent and former-shell-of-himself John McCain a lock against challenger J.D. Hayworth.

In lieu of any horse-rase photo-finish suspense, the press has mostly turned their pens and QWERTYs to McCain, the probable winner who, according to those who’ve been watching him, has had to significantly change his spots to earn that title. You’ll remember no doubt the infamous Newsweek piece back in April in which McCain told David Margolick, “I never considered myself a maverick.” And, Joe Hagan’s New York profile, a psychological assessment of sorts, which included this choice graf summing up McCain’s political switcheroo:

…as panic overtook McCain in early 2010, it would be [advisor Rick] Davis who channeled it into a tactical short game, advising him to co-opt Hayworth’s political turf by tacking into his positions, out-tea-partying Hayworth on immigration. Consequently, McCain’s Arizona tail wagged his Washington dog: McCain would soon reverse or greatly reel in his previous positions on torture, on cap and trade, on gays in the military, and, finally, crucially, on immigration.

The change has worked for McCain, who in late 2009 had a two percent lead over the candidate he now leads by double digits. And on the eve of his likely nomination, reporters are pondering the cost McCain might have paid for his victory. At least, that’s what Politico asks today in a typically forward-looking appraisal of the candidate.

There is the inevitable McCain before-and-after paragraph:

Once the sponsor of comprehensive immigration reform with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy — a stance that hurt him with conservatives — McCain moved in a different direction this year. He switched his emphasis this summer to border security, embraced Arizona’s controversial hard-line immigration law and, in an ad, called on the federal government to “complete the danged fence” — three years after dismissing the notion of a border fence in a Vanity Fair article titled “Prisoner of Conscience.”

And the roundup of McCain’s particularly nasty campaign advertising:

What followed was a barrage of slickly produced ads and oppo hits that blasted and mocked Hayworth for everything from his comments on the president’s citizenship to his role as a pitchman in a shady infomercial to his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Hayworth, who lost his House seat in 2006, acknowledged the fusillade took its toll. “They subjected me to a withering assault, a multimillion dollar smear campaign. It certainly has had an effect,” he said, while still predicting it would backfire.

And then the musings on the McCain legacy:

It’s true that McCain didn’t launch his career as a consensus-building moderate, but rather grew into it as he eyed the White House. Before teaming up with Sen. Joe Lieberman on a bill to cap carbon emissions and supporting funding for embryonic stem cell research, he compiled a reliably conservative record as a House member during the Reagan administration.

“McCain has gone right, left, right,” said Arizona GOP consultant Jason Rose, a former aide to Hayworth. “It has undoubtedly hurt his national reputation, but the irony I believe, is his standing in Arizona has improved. I think Arizona will likely regard him as an impressive, historic figure. Will he be Barry Goldwater? No, but he certainly has to be damn near close.”

The Associated Press spends less time contemplating legacy and more time examining McCain the fighter, a politically savvy and ruthless operative who clawed back to what some polls have said is a forty-five point lead against Hayworth. It’s a solid summary of events up to now, with a solid breakdown of McCain’s $20 million spend to Hayworth’s $2.6 million. But it does at times skew a little maverick-battler for my liking. Take this from the top:

The cast of “Survivor” has nothing on Sen. John McCain…

Elsewhere, Dan Balz at The Washington Post writes that McCain’s comeback and win could be part of an anti-anti-incumbency uptick for establishment candidates across tomorrow’s two big primaries, Arizona and Florida. He could republish tomorrow if all goes according to plan.

For a more local perspective, The Arizona Republic’s formidable Dan Nowicki has been documenting the ups-and-downs of the contest at his AZ/DC blog, with a strong focus on both the horse race and the issues—immigration the hottest among them. There is some expert reporting, and Nowicki challenges some of the candidate’s claims (see this story on Hayworth’s backtracking on a recent statement). And if you like that sort of pushback, the Republic’s AZ Fact Check, run in conjunction with 12 News and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State, cribs PolitiFact’s format to rate political claims on a five star scale, five stars being the most true (perhaps because the state is so solidly red, Republican assertions are challenged more frequently than Democrats). And to brush up, Nowicki’s summary of the race for the paper last week is a solid play-by-play primer on a primary he calls a “no-holds-barred race.”

Both locally and nationally, pre-primary day reading on Arizona feels much like post-primary day reading. We have the winner, we know how he won, and already—since April, really—we’ve been contemplating what it means for him.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.