Former U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth had a much-needed opportunity Friday night to refocus Arizona’s Republican Senate primary on incumbent John McCain, and he came out swinging.
McCain, Hayworth and political newcomer Jim Deakin squared off Friday in the first of two televised debates before Arizona’s Aug. 24 Republican primary.
“It’s really sad to see John McCain, who should be revered as a statesman, basically reduced to a political shape-shifter,” he said, then turned to his opponent. “John, you’ve changed positions so much in this campaign maybe we’ll have to set up an extra podium for you depending on which John McCain is going to answer which question.”
And so it was for a commercial-free hour as Hayworth lobbed a number of one-liners toward Arizona’s senior senator, who has a comfortable advantage in fundraising and polling less than two weeks before early voting begins.
McCain’s reply: “There he goes again. Facts are stubborn things.” He touted his ability to lead and hammered Hayworth for his record in congress and his work as a registered lobbyist and infomercial pitchman after losing his re-election bid in 2006.
Hayworth has stumbled since video surfaced of his appearance in a 2007 infomercial hawking free government money on behalf of a Florida company accused of charging thousands of dollars for information that was readily available online or at a public library.
“These are the facts,” McCain said. “J.D. Hayworth was a lobbyist. He was in late-night infomercials. He said he didn’t do due diligence. My God man, didn’t you know that this was a group that was taking people’s money to say it could give them free (government) money…No one can say they’re a conservative when they engage in that kind of activity.”
Hayworth slammed McCain for supporting “amnesty” because of his work on an unsuccessful immigration overhaul bill that would have created a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants now in the country.
McCain responded that his bill wasn’t amnesty because it had penalties for illegal immigrants seeking legal status.
McCain said Arizona voters should return him to Washington because he’s a leader who has directed the fight against a health care overhaul and against Pesident Barack Obama’s stimulus plan. He said he has skills and experience his opponents lack.
“I’m confident Jim Deakin would go and fight and J.D. Hayworth would go and fight,” he said. “I will lead, as I have in the past and I will in the future.
Hayworth replied that McCain didn’t do enough to defeat the health overhaul.
“You have not been effective, sir. It’s sad. We appreciaite your service,” he said.
While they hammered away at each other personally, they generally agreed on most issues. They opposed a financial overhaul bill approved Thursday in the Senate along with the health overhaul passed earlier this year. They agreed that the federal government hasn’t done enough to strengthen border security.
The debate was an opportunity for Deakin, a Navy veteran and businessman who has raised less than $35,000 for his campaign, to introduce himself to voters who know little about him. He struck a tea party message, criticizing McCain and Hayworth as “career politicians” and saying the invasion of Afghanistan was unconstitutional and the Sixteenth Amendment should be repealed. The constitutional amendment is the basis for federal income taxes.
Hayworth had been eager to debate McCain for months. In February, he called a press conference outside McCain’s central Phoenix office before delivering a letter pitching 15 debates. He pounded McCain about debates until the four-term senator finally agreed last month to meet his GOP challengers before the Aug. 24 primary.
Still, debates rarely have much of an impact on the outcome of an election, and when they do, it’s usually because a candidate has said something so classy or outrageous that the media make an issue of it, said Rodolfo Espino, an Arizona State University assistant professor of political science.
The debate was broadcast live from the studios of KTVK. The candidates will debate again Saturday night in Tucson.