Last week had to have been a difficult one for Sen. John McCain. Locked in an increasingly harsh primary for a fifth term, McCain was compelled to appear with his one-time running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in an effort to bolster his campaign. Palin's appearance in Arizona helped solidify McCain's conservative bona fides, but at the same time it illustrated McCain's surprisingly shaky standing.
In any other year, McCain would be a shoo-in for re-election. But this is a strange year for Republicans. With Democrats in complete control of the federal government, the GOP is undergoing significant infighting. Once-popular GOP incumbent officials in states across the country have found themselves under attack from activists in their own party for perceived soft conservatism.
McCain faces a similar test himself, but he is helped greatly by his roots in Arizona, a flawed primary opponent, and perhaps most of all, his adoption -- really, his whole-hearted embrace -- of strident, rhetorical partisanship.
This is what separates McCain from threatened incumbents like Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah and Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida who have been too quiet in their conservatism: McCain has been loud, cutting, and frankly, shamelessly vicious in publicly opposing Obama's policies. And while this behavior may turn back years of McCain's efforts at bipartisanship outreach, they are the perfect salve to appeal to frustrated Republican voters who will determine his fate in the August primary. McCain's eager appearance with Palin, perhaps the most popular national figure among hardline Republicans, was merely a pronounced expression of rightward lurch.
Still, it is hard to believe that the McCain enjoyed sharing the stage with Palin. It is easy to imagine the fiercely proud McCain gritting his teeth and agreeing to enlist the former governor whose titanic stardom he single-handedly mid-wived. It could not have been easy, but it speaks to the position McCain finds himself in and his desire to remain in office despite the defeat of his presidential ambitions.
So, could McCain lose? Given the toxic national environment for incumbents this year, it seems that no one who is up for election in either party can feel completely safe. This is especially true for Republicans who, like McCain, have had an uneasy relationship with the conservative wing of the GOP over the years.
McCain's principal primary opponent -- McCain will be unbeatable in a general election contest -- J.D. Hayworth, a former congressman who was ousted from office in 2006, has a long, colorful record and certainly one that can be characterized as gleefully conservative. He is to the right of the incumbent on most issues of prominence, and has made these differences between the two the keystone of his insurgent campaign.
At this point, Hayworth's tactics seem to be working as the latest poll of the contest showed McCain ahead by only seven points. Troublingly, the same March 16 poll found McCain's lead dramatically narrowing despite enjoying a 60/36 favorable rating versus a tepid 47/43 split for Hayworth. This seems to suggest that state Republicans like McCain more than his opponent by a healthy margin, but may blindly want a change nonetheless.
Still, Hayworth has a lot of baggage. Widely known as one of the most obnoxious Members of Congress and given to making outlandish statements, Hayworth was widely ineffective as a legislator and was disliked by many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Unlike McCain, who, at least until the last year was able to work on bipartisan outreach, Hayworth is a bitterly divisive figure whose behavior might be too much for conservatives this year. His ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff will also hurt his candidacy.
Taken together, McCain would have to be considered the favorite. McCain has deeper roots in Arizona than threatened Republican incumbents in other states and his main opponent in Hayworth has considerable flaws. Most importantly, because McCain has been so critical of President Obama, he has given Hayworth little to criticize.
It will therefore take some luck for Hayworth to surge. This could occur if someone like Rush Limbaugh were to back Hayworth. Limbaugh has a long history with McCain -- McCain called the talk-meister a "circus clown" in 2002 and then apologized to actual circus clowns for making the comparison -- and his support of a McCain opponent is not inconceivable. If Hayworth could achieve that support, it could be a game-changer.
Nevertheless, John McCain's enlisting of Sarah Palin's help last week is a telling sign that his standing is tenuous this August. McCain would have never appeared as Palin's second fiddle if that wasn't the case. As it stands, McCain remains the favorite to prevail in the GOP primary, but if he isn't careful, his fortunes could change in an instant, and the Arizona Senate primary could become the most-watched race in the country.