From the first, there has been a sense of urgency in this campaign that was absent from his presidential run. McCain told friends early on that he didn’t want to “go out like Barry Goldwater,” his Arizona predecessor in the Senate, who barely eked out his last reelection bid. Though no credible candidate had yet appeared to challenge him, McCain harbored a healthy paranoia. In addition to hiring a campaign manager in Arizona to keep tabs on the ground game, he retained the core of his presidential-campaign team, including GOP consultants Rick Davis and Charlie Black and veteran aide and speechwriter Mark Salter.
McCain’s fears began to materialize in the form of J. D. Hayworth, the former Arizona congressman turned right-wing radio-talk-show host, who began hammering McCain for supporting the bank bailouts, exploiting growing populist anger in Arizona. Hayworth galled the senator by mocking McCain’s radio advertisements on the air and naming him “Weenie of the Week.” It had the intended effect: “I’m sick of him bashing me on the air,” McCain groused to a staffer.
This past November, a Rasmussen Reports poll appeared showing Hayworth within two percentage points of McCain in a virtual Senate race. McCain was “freaked out,” says a person close to him, and he convened a meeting of his advisers. “Everybody’s head was on fire,” says the person, describing McCain as “nervous and jumpy.” Sensing his boss’s anxiety, Davis promised they’d take out Hayworth early and fast.
When McCain gets nervous, he speed-dials friends for advice. And that fall, he even called his former top strategist, John Weaver, to ask his opinion. Weaver and McCain had had a bitter falling out in 2007, precipitating the near collapse of his presidential campaign, after which McCain put Davis in charge. Weaver warned McCain that he should ignore Hayworth, that he was training too much attention on a guy who had only 30,000 listeners and appealed to a segment that would never vote for McCain anyway, namely the hard-core anti-immigration wing.
Weaver’s advice was far from unique. Even one of McCain’s oldest and dearest friends, his POW bunkmate at the Hanoi Hilton, Orson Swindle, advised McCain to “just ignore him. That was my idea.”
But McCain needed to train his ire on someone. And though Hayworth hadn’t officially announced he was running, McCain’s people agitated for an FEC complaint over Hayworth’s alleged abuse of radio airwaves to promote a political run, hoping to intimidate him. Grant Woods, a lawyer and now senior adviser on McCain’s campaign, thought it was rash and advised McCain to wait and see if they could privately dissuade Hayworth from running instead.
“Many of us thought there would be some value in trying to explore at least some kind of détente, try to keep him out of the race in some way,” says Woods. “John was never of that opinion. He basically wanted to punch the guy in the face from day one. And nothing’s changed.”
Some of McCain’s friends questioned the advice he was getting from his D.C. advisers, Davis and Black. “He makes emotional decisions,” says a GOP strategist who has worked closely with McCain. “If he says, ‘I want to do X,’ they’re like, ‘Let’s go do X on steroids.’ It’s exactly what he does not need.”
But there was something more than just McCain’s pent-up anger at work. Many in Arizona point to another factor: McCain’s pent-up money, over $20 million left from his failed presidential bid. That account could be used to fund millions in TV and radio ads in Arizona and, depending on the arrangement, McCain’s advisers could also profit. J. D. Hayworth, a loudmouth who angered and disgusted their boss, was someone to spend it on.
By training his firepower at Hayworth, McCain gave him credibility he might not otherwise have had, which many see as a strategic blunder. When Hayworth announced he was leaving his radio show, McCain was so high-strung he couldn’t even listen, having an aide relay sound bites as they came over the radio. “Go back and listen,” he said, sitting alone and speed-dialing for advice.
By setting himself up against Hayworth, McCain was locked into a fight for the tea-party vote—essentially a race to the right, one in which McCain would be hobbled by his past positions. There was intense internal debate among McCain’s advisers in the fall of 2009 about whether McCain should even appear at a tea-party rally. McCain’s chief of staff, Mark Buse, was terrified of McCain getting booed off the stage and having the image go into cable-TV rotation. Until March, his advisers repeatedly refused to let McCain appear at one.
The most complicated decision McCain had to face involved his own political Frankenstein monster. Until the fall, McCain wasn’t sure Sarah Palin, his political creation and now a catalyst for the tea party, was going to be politically advantageous for him. When asked by an adviser to reach out to her last summer, McCain growled that “it’s not the right time.” And as her book, Going Rogue, was about to launch in November, it looked like it might be too late. When asked by advisers to recruit her in the fight against Hayworth, McCain complained, “She won’t even return my calls.”