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What Would a Maverick Do?

But the Republican Party was emboldened by the Brown win. And in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, minority leader from Kentucky, conscripted McCain as a lead voice in the Republicans’ “Party of No” stance toward the Obama administration. In January, Harry Reid articulated what many observers were thinking: “My amazement has been John McCain. I thought he’d turn out to be a statesman, work for things. He is against everything.”

Last February, some McCain allies became concerned. Senator Lindsey Graham, perhaps McCain’s closest compatriot in the Senate, worried that McCain was undermining his reputation as a deal-maker by following in lockstep with McConnell. Graham asked John Weaver if he and Mark Salter could talk to McCain, according to a person briefed on the conversation. Weaver called McCain, this person says, urging him to “stay away from every time there’s an anti-Obama movement on the floor and they drag you out like some prop.”

A couple of days later, McCain called Weaver back and told him his advisers wanted him to lead in opposing health care. And McCain did exactly that, acting as a lead critic during Obama’s televised health-care summit in late February, where Obama chided McCain that “the election is over.” (“I’m reminded of that every day” was McCain’s retort.)

The exchange fanned McCain’s grievances over his election loss, and his legendary temper would occasionally flare up during his campaigning. McCain spokesperson Brooke Buchanan, who shadows him everywhere and writes his Twitter feed, would have to temper his rage when he came off as too harsh or bitter. During one event last spring, she told him, “You can’t do that, you’ve got to stop it.”

“Was I really bad?” he asked.

“Yeah, you can’t be that way.”

Then, in March, an Arizona rancher named Robert Krentz was shot and killed, allegedly by Mexican drug smugglers, igniting the immigration debate. Senator Graham says he realized right away that McCain was in trouble. “I said, ‘Oh, shit,’ ” says Graham. “This is just gasoline on a fire.”

Hayworth pounced on the border issue and began going after McCain’s past advocacy for immigrant workers.

McCain dove to the right, countering with a TV advertisement featuring himself walking alongside a popular Arizona sheriff, evincing concern about securing the border with a giant fence. “Complete the danged fence!” growls McCain, looking uncomfortable.

The ad was a disaster. Everyone knew McCain had never been a strong advocate of a fence, and his own campaign staffers felt he came off looking phony. But when anyone questioned the campaign’s course, McCain defended his new guru. “Rick Davis, the guy who got me the presidential nomination, you know him?” he’d snap sarcastically. “He knows everything.”

McCain hardly had time to think about what any of this was doing to his reputation. Weekend after weekend, he was driving from town hall to parade to VFW, greeting sparse crowds of 40, 50, 60 people, like he was stumping for his political life. “I didn’t work this hard in the presidential race,” he told an aide. “I can’t believe how hard I’m working.”

Desperate to hold on to his base in Arizona, McCain seemed intent on proving that his maverick days were behind him. His best chance presented itself in April, when the governor of Arizona, Jan Brewer, signed the controversial Senate Bill 1070, which requires immigrants to carry papers showing their legal status and allows law enforcement to pull over suspected illegals. Salter was adamantly against it. In the past, when McCain came under pressure for his immigration stance, he told people he was a “big boy” and could “take it.” But with political heat rising, he reversed course. Blaming the federal government for lack of action, McCain embraced the law as the only thing left to do in fighting Mexican drug cartels run amok, even if statistics were showing that violent crime was down last year.

In May, Mark Salter left his home in suburban Virginia to spend the next five months—almost the entirety of John McCain’s campaign—holed up in a cottage in Castine, Maine, a quaint village on Penobscot Bay.

Salter rarely sees McCain anymore, as he readily admitted when I went to see him. While he once spent fourteen hours a day in McCain’s D.C. office as his chief of staff, he is no longer the last voice McCain hears before passing judgment on major issues, his input restricted to e-mails, conference calls, and the occasional phone conversations.

“I’m indebted to him,” says Salter. “I will be for the remainder of my life. Outside my marriage and the birth of my children, going to work for him was the most determinant of my life and the most beneficial. And nobody will ever accuse me of not being grateful.”