The Thorn in McCain's Side

Lloyd Grove talks to Tea Party-powered former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, a man trying to do the unthinkable and boot the legendary John McCain out of office.

As an afternoon drive-time radio host in Phoenix, J.D. Hayworth did a killer impression of John McCain. He lampooned Arizona’s senior senator as a closet liberal who wants to raise taxes, coddle terrorists, and grant amnesty to illegal immigrants.

But these days the former Republican congressman isn’t taking requests for his John McCain shtick.

“As much as I’d like to do that,” Hayworth explains, “now that I’m back running for elective office, I’ve retired that impersonation from my repertoire.”

But I hear it’s pretty good, I tell him.

“Thank you,” he replies. “But flattery, in this case, is going to prove ineffective.”

“It amounts to a classic political confrontation. McCain has the Washington establishment and we have ‘We the People.’ McCain may have the greenbacks, but we have the grassroots.”

Hayworth, who on Monday announced that he’s running against McCain in the Republican Senate primary in August, insists in a damning-with-faint-praise tone that he has nothing but admiration for the distinguished senator.

“We all respect John and thank him for his service,” Hayworth says. “His place in history is secure. He will remain a widely admired historical figure. But after 28 years in Washington, it’s time to come home. People are just ready for a change.”

It’s a sign of the peculiar political times that the 51-year-old Hayworth—who was voted out of office in 2006 amid the Democratic sweep and the Jack Abramoff scandal—has any chance at all against the 73-year-old McCain, a celebrated Navy war hero who was, most recently, the Republican presidential nominee.

But he does. The climate is unpredictable. The electorate is mad as hell at the powers that be. And while McCain is arguably perceived as a creature of Washington, where he has spent the last three decades, Hayworth is attempting to cast himself as the mavericky outsider—a role he doubtless will play during his appearance at Thursday’s session of the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual Washington conclave of right-wingers from all over.

“Sure, he’s a very slick communicator, but he has no demonstrated record of accomplishment,” says Brian Rogers, McCain’s campaign press secretary. “He went to college for broadcasting and he was a sportscaster before he was elected to Congress, and he’s obviously been successful at that. But compare that to the life experience of John McCain. I think people are looking for a little bit more than a radio shock jock.”

In recent days, Hayworth has been appearing on national cable news shows to trumpet the campaign, only to be caught up in discussions about whether President Obama is a natural-born citizen and whether the president should be required to produce documents to reassure Americans that identity theft is not in the mix.

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When I invite Hayworth to dispose of the “birther” issue once and for all, he parries: “That’s so misconstrued. The only guys who want to talk about it are reporters in Washington and New York…. I don’t have any reason to doubt that [Obama was born in the United States]. What I want to talk about is what Barack Obama has done and more important hasn’t done as president.”

Hayworth—who has promised to term-limit himself to 12 years in the Senate if elected—seems reluctant to accept responsibility for creating the conditions for his 2006 defeat, instead blaming the unpopularity of George W. Bush and unfair attacks in the media. Only after I press him does he finally allow: “I made my share of mistakes.”

Hayworth gave up his radio gig last month after McCain’s lawyers complained to the federal regulatory agencies and his bosses at Clear Channel about his continual on-air sniping, and he plans to do a little consulting on the side to support his wife and three children as the campaign progresses. He has raised only a tiny fraction of the incumbent’s $5 million in the bank. McCain, a powerful four-term senator who won reelection with 77 percent of the vote in 2004, has every institutional advantage, plus the support of nearly every office holder in Arizona and the coveted endorsements of such conservative establishment icons as anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, Book of Virtues czar Bill Bennett, former Senator Fred Thompson, and McCain’s erstwhile running mate, Sarah Palin. Hayworth has Rush Limbaugh—not as an endorser of his candidacy, at least not yet, but as a longtime McCain detractor.

Hayworth, moreover, has a checkered past: His six terms in the House, during which he took a reported $69,000 from Abramoff and his Indian casino clients, were undistinguished; he was derided in the media as a “buffoon” and a “bully”; and his wife, Mary, was attacked for pocketing around $100,000, for professional services only vaguely defined, from Hayworth’s political action committee.

And yet McCain and his operatives are taking Hayworth seriously—very seriously. They greeted Monday’s announcement ceremony with a press release personally savaging Hayworth, and they are carpet-bombing the airwaves with negative radio ads portraying him as a typical pork-barrel politician who voted for appropriations that contained some pesky earmarks, such as “$90,000 of our tax money to research fruit flies in France,” as one McCain spot claims.

“I think they’re getting a little shrill, and their ads are creating a great deal of backlash,” Hayworth says. “They’re striking the wrong chord and sounding a false note. I don’t see the political advantage of bragging to Politico that they’re going to run a scorched-earth campaign against me. Even Rush Limbaugh was talking about this Tuesday morning. He said, here John McCain is going full tilt after a true conservative. Why didn’t he do something like this with Barack Obama? But,” Hayworth adds, “the political wind is at my back.”

Hayworth says he decided to run after a Rasmussen poll last November showed him in a statistical dead heat with McCain, and conservative Republicans kept emailing and calling, urging him to take the plunge. More recent polls show McCain with a 20-point advantage. Hayworth says that if elected, he’ll fight “Obama and the Democrats, and their cheerleaders in the media,” but so far he’s thin on specific policy ideas of his own. “This is a marathon—and people don’t vote 'til August,” he says. “We’ll be getting into greater detail as we go along.”

As for McCain’s huge cash advantage, “We’ve got plenty of gas money,” Hayworth says. “I think we’re going to be able to wage a very successful campaign. To be effective in Arizona, you’ve got to raise about $2 million. Certainly that’s our goal.”

He adds: “It amounts to a classic political confrontation. McCain has the Washington establishment and we have ‘We the People.’ McCain may have the greenbacks, but we have the grassroots.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for The Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.