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.

Hinz says he didn't expect to change the senator's mind, only to remind him of strong opposition to the measure in the state.

McCain was blunt, Hinz recalls. The John McCain with whom Hinz says he spoke is not the John McCain the Washington press coos over, the campaign-finance-reform maverick disgusted with special interests' control over our lives.

Hinz doesn't recall the exact wording of the conversation, so the following is paraphrased.

Hinz says he told McCain, "'What we're hoping is that there's any way that you cannot hear this bill [in committee].'

"And his response to me was that, 'You know this is a bill that the trial lawyers don't like.' And he said, 'I can tell you that . . . the trial lawyer money goes to the Kennedys and the Democrats, and not to the Republicans.' And there is no way that he [McCain] is going to fight [Republican] leadership on a bill that all the money is going to the Democrats."

". . . I wasn't shocked by the response," Hinz says. "He was instructed by leadership that he would hear this bill and the constituents be damned. John's attitude, you have to remember, as a senator is that he does not necessarily represent Arizona, he represents the national interest. And he indicated that to me. He feels that this is good for the nation. So the 85-15 vote in Arizona really had no bearing on it."

Hinz adds, "I made the phone call to alert him that it [Auto Choice] could be a little politically sensitive in Arizona, because it has been so heavily defeated. And yes, the trial lawyers in Washington [oppose Auto Choice], but when something passed 85-15 in Arizona, a few Republicans voted for it! And that was primarily my message to him: 'John, the grassroots Republicans don't like this bill. It's an insurance company bill and it's Armey's bill,' and that's when he said, 'It's a leadership bill. I'm not going to buck leadership.'

"John isn't stupid, okay? The word was that when you look at the Republicans and the war chests and the monies that are given to support those efforts, that money does not go to those Republicans. And I reminded him that in Arizona the trial lawyers support several Republicans."

The conversation ended cordially, but with no agreement. "He wasn't gonna convince me and I wasn't gonna convince him," Hinz says.

Hinz has his own theory on McCain's agreement to co-sponsor the bill. One of the bill's biggest fans is Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, who also happens to be a vehement opponent of McCain's campaign-finance legislation. Hinz thinks this was McCain's way of appeasing leadership.

"I think when you've been to the woodshed too often and then you have a very popular Republican program, I think he owed them one," Hinz says. "And unfortunately, he owed them one that the people of Arizona hate."

He adds, "You're a maverick when it's to your advantage and the cameras are rolling."

I called McCain, but he couldn't come to the phone. Instead, I received a call from Mark Buse, staff director of the Senate Commerce Committee. Yes, Buse says, McCain had a brief conversation with Hinz. But the senator doesn't recall specifics. Buse says the senator is a big supporter of tort reform--not just in this instance, but many others.

"As far as the comment about the money," Buse says, "he's made it very clear, and he states this publicly, as he stated it publicly just recently on Good Morning--no, on the Today show, that because of the huge amounts of money given to both sides that many bills don't become law and that much good legislation does not occur."

Buse insists--repeatedly--that McCain never made the comments about not wanting to buck leadership.

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