McCain's Arizona Problem

If the senator will listen, he might learn why he's trailing George W. Bush in his home state

Last week, John McCain's presidential campaign machine cranked out a press release touting the candidate's rise in a poll of New Hampshire voters.

Not surprisingly, the campaign chose to ignore another poll released that day, which showed McCain's presidential popularity plummeting among Arizona voters. Here in the Grand Canyon State, Texas Governor George W. Bush now leads McCain 37 percent to 21 percent. Six months ago, McCain led Bush by 5 percent.

Second place in New Hampshire is good, but second place in Arizona--McCain's "home" state, the state he's represented since 1983, the one state he should win handily--is beyond bad. It's wretched.

The McCain campaign staffers are acutely aware of the Arizona Problem. That's why they tried to get our Legislature to shuffle the state's primary date, now slated for February 22. Ironically, the current, early primary date was established at McCain's insistence in 1996, to give his friend, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, an early boost. (Gramm didn't even make it as far as the Arizona primary, throwing in his cards after the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucuses.) This time around, McCain wanted to push the Arizona primary back, to assure his own victory. But the plan bombed.

So even if McCain does well enough in New Hampshire and Iowa to advance in the presidential primaries, he may get hung up in Arizona and never make it to California--another state where he's devoted considerable effort. This seems incredible. After all, McCain's our senior senator, the unofficial head of the state GOP. He's always won reelection with ease. In local polls, he ranks at the top of the list of statewide elected officials, higher than Governor Jane Dee Hull.

But remember: No one's ever really given John McCain a run for his money here in Arizona. Each election cycle, McCain's competition has been increasingly pathetic, and last time around, almost nonexistent. McCain barely had to campaign at all against Democrat Ed Ranger, a no-name who hadn't lived in the state in years.

McCain's election cake walks have hurt his presidential aspirations in Arizona. His support in Arizona may be broad, but it's so shallow that George W. Bush is poised to stick a silver-toed cowboy boot right through it.

The whole episode is another reminder that the John McCain the people of Arizona know is different from the guy with whom folks in Washington, D.C., are acquainted. The national John McCain is cordial, self-deprecating, accommodating, disarming and cheerful, eager to set a course for his continuing national service.

The John McCain we know in Arizona doesn't give a whit about us. He's nasty, arrogant and couldn't care less about Arizonans' want or need. Despite his claims about wanting to clean up the campaign-finance system, he happily uses his position as Senate Commerce Committee chairman to strong-arm big communications companies for campaign donations.

George W. Bush is no Ed Ranger. With little effort, Bush has outpolled and outmilked McCain on his own turf.

Jon Hinz thinks he knows why.

Jon Hinz runs a group called FAIR, Fairness and Accountability in Insurance Reform, an organization affiliated with the Arizona Trial Lawyers Association. He's a longtime Republican, even a past executive director of the Arizona Republican Party. One of Hinz's pet peeves is no-fault auto insurance, specifically a bill now before Congress called Auto Choice.

The bill--a favorite of conservative GOP Representative Dick Armey of Texas--will, according to its fans in the insurance industry, slow the increase in auto-insurance policy premiums and reduce frivolous lawsuits. Consumers would be allowed to choose among various policies, with the idea being that you can opt for lower premiums if you forfeit your right to sue for damages related to pain and suffering after an accident.

The real effect, says Hinz and other representatives of the trial lawyers, is to rob injured parties of their day in court and pump up insurers' bottom lines.

The Arizona electorate has already spoken on this issue. In 1990, voters here defeated an almost identical measure by an overwhelming, unprecedented majority: 85-15. Subsequent tort-reform efforts in Arizona went down as well. Voters in other states, including California in 1996, have defeated similar measures. And in every state where Auto Choice has passed, it has ultimately been repealed.

That's not exactly a mandate.

But Dick Armey and other Contract With America groupies who normally abhor measures that trample states' rights love this bill. Go figure.

The bill got a big boost this year, the Washington, D.C., press reported, when John McCain signed on again as the lead co-sponsor. Despite his sponsorship, McCain's been mum on the subject. He was absent from the Commerce Committee meeting this year where the bill was introduced. He hasn't issued a press release on the bill or made a speech about it that I could find.

Maybe it's that 85-15 thing. Jon Hinz says he reminded McCain of that figure last November, when he spoke to the senator about Auto Choice. Hinz had expressed his displeasure to the senator's staff about the possibility that McCain would co-sponsor the bill and shepherd it through his committee. McCain was kind enough to call.

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