John McCain Heats Up November Battle for Arizona at Lunch for Romney

The senator praised his former foe and slammed Obama in Scottsdale, Ariz. By Terry Greene Sterling.

Jae C. Hong / AP Photo

In what amounted to a ceremonial rite of passage, Arizona’s bruised maverick and 2008 presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, passed the symbolic torch to former foe Mitt Romney on Friday.

The Republican National Committee unity lunch for Romney in Scottsdale, Ariz., came a day after Vice President Joe Biden breezed into Phoenix for a fundraiser, signaling the importance of Arizona in the nation’s new electoral battlefield, the growing American West. Both parties are battling to win moderate and Latino voters to cement Arizona, viewed as a prognosticator for other Western states. As national and state Republicans maintain the state is and always will be solidly red, Democrats are banking on a galvanized Latino electorate and a moderate Senate ticket led by former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, a Latino, to turn the state blue.

Dressed in his trademark blazer on Friday, McCain warned the gathering of GOP state chairmen that the election would be close and depended on their efforts to get out the vote. Left unmentioned was how he and Romney duked it out, not always pleasantly, for the 2008 presidential nomination. McCain focused instead on the GOP standards: the evils of Obamacare (an “exercise in sleaze”), class warfare, an “unsustainable deficit,” and how Romney “saved companies” while at Bain Capital.

This year’s presumptive Republican nominee, appearing presidential in a suit and blue tie and obligatory American flag pin, thanked his ex-foe for “standing true to the principles of our party” and fighting for America for “decades.” As conventioneers munched on apple pie and ice cream, Romney pummeled President Obama, accusing him of running a failed foreign policy, making the recession worse, promoting a tax policy that would hurt small businesses, and signing the Affordable Care Act. (It resembles the health plan Romney signed in Massachusetts.) Romney vowed once again to “repeal Obamacare” and build an oil pipeline from Canada.

“I think he’s a nice person. I just don’t think we can afford him any longer,” Romney quipped, as GOP leaders applauded heartily.

Romney spoke little about immigration, his Achilles’ heel with Hispanic voters, especially in Arizona, which is about 30 percent Hispanic. He has vowed to veto the Dream Act, which would give undocumented kids a pathway to citizenship via military service or college, and has promoted the notion that unauthorized migrants must “self-deport.”

At the luncheon, Romney said he supported “legal immigration.” That’s code for “immigration hawk” to Hispanics in Arizona, many of whom, though they may be citizens, feel targeted by the state’s immigration law, SB 1070, which for unauthorized migrants makes setting foot on Arizona soil a state crime. Gov. Jan Brewer signed the law and Romney supports it.

Republicans in Arizona are banking on polls that indicate Hispanics care more about the economy than immigration, said Shane Wikfors, the state GOP party spokesman. That’s a strategy the GOP will employ nationwide. And Romney planned to meet privately with Hispanic business leaders after the luncheon.

Before the luncheon began inside the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Resort, a handful of Arizona Democrats stood on a public street outside blasting Romney’s anti-Latino platform. They said they aren’t mollified by Sen. Marco Rubio, a possible Romney vice-presidential nominee, who has warned his party to take it easy on Hispanics and recently proposed a compromise Dream Act that would allow undocumented kids to stay in the United States but not receive citizenship.

Rubio’s Dream Act is laughable and “not even McCain” supports self-deportation, said state Rep. Ruben Gallego. Arizona Democrats have a 50-50 chance of winning the state, he said, despite registered Republican voters slightly outnumbering registered Democratic voters.

Arizona Democrats have always been in the minority, Gallego said, and yet the state has gone blue before. (The state turned blue for Bill Clinton and elected two prominent Democratic governors, Bruce Babbitt and Janet Napolitano.)

On Thursday night at a poolside cocktail event closed to the press, Governor Brewer welcomed GOP party chairmen to the Scottsdale resort. There’s some speculation in Arizona over whether Brewer, who became a national conservative star after signing the state’s immigration law and, more recently, finger-wagging Obama on an airport tarmac, might be in line for consideration for vice president or a Cabinet slot. Romney is keeping mum about potential running mates. But one Arizona Republican leader told The Daily Beast that while Brewer would attract GOP base voters and women, she would probably be passed over for someone like Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, who would attract conservatives, women, and Latinos.

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Before Romney took off from the battleground Grand Canyon State, he spoke to followers at the Arizona Historical Society Museum. Next up: Michelle Obama, expected to visit Tucson on April 30 for a fundraiser.