No place like home?

While his campaign is gaining some momentum in places like New Hampshire and South Carolina, Arizona Sen. John McCain is locked in a tough primary fight in his own backyard.

Topics: Republican Party, John McCain, R-Ariz.,

While he has emerged as the darling of the national press corps on the campaign trail Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign is struggling for traction here in his home state. Against a backdrop of flattering press about his rise in New Hampshire, McCain is facing a full-scale attack in Arizona by George W. Bush and Steve Forbes that could brutalize his upstart presidential campaign.

“If the [Arizona] election were held today, I think he’d lose,” said former Arizona attorney general Grant Woods, a former aide and confidant to McCain. “Fortunately for him, it’s not.”

Woods and McCain once were the Batman and Robin of Arizona politics, a GOP duo so bold and fearless that they seemed like the start of a new Arizona political dynasty. McCain even named Woods godfather to his son, John S. McCain IV.

Woods worked on McCain’s first congressional campaign, and later served as a top congressional aide. Today, Woods is wavering between supporting Dole or Bush. He was Bob Dole’s 1996 Arizona campaign chairman. Woods is now the host of a radio talk show in Phoenix, and on occasion, has been a thorn in McCain’s side. He recently rankled the senator’s camp by saying, “there’s a very real question whether he’ll even get Arizona.”

Woods said unlike many Americans, who are just getting to know McCain, the senator is not a novelty to him or other Arizonans. “It’s like after being married for 10 years. It’s a different relationship than it might have been on the first date,” Woods explained. “That doesn’t mean we still don’t hold affection for him. It means we don’t want to consummate the wedding.”

Yet over the years McCain and Woods split on a number of issues, including Woods’ prosecution of former Arizona Gov. Fife Symington. Woods said he has lost his friendship to McCain over politics, while McCain downplays the rift.

The rift between McCain’s and Woods, who recently shared the national stage with McCain in the war on Big Tobacco, is telling. To outsiders, it might help to explain why some top Arizona Republicans, including Gov. Jane Hull and John Rhodes, the former Republican leader in the House, are climbing on board with other presidential candidates, and why McCain’s campaign has all but lost its home field advantage for the Arizona primary.

“The things that are most attractive to newcomers to McCain are thing we’ve already assimilated,” Woods said. “It comes more down to issues and personality, and in that area, he wins some and he loses some.”

McCain’s home turf political dilemma is a major problem for a man who has represented Arizona in Washington since 1983. Over the past 16 years, he has filled seats once occupied by two of the state’s political giants, former House Minority Leader John Rhodes and Sen. Barry Goldwater.

Logically, Arizona’s favorite son should win the state’s mid-February primary with ease, but recent polls suggest he is in for a colossal, and expensive, battle in his own backyard that could kill off or financially cripple his campaign.

“If McCain loses here, Bush just sticks a silver spike through his heart. He’s done,” said Arizona State University pollster Bruce Merrill, whose poll last month showed McCain trailing Bush by 9 points. “Even if he comes out of Arizona, where does he go in terms of money?”

For McCain, the sudden attention being lavished on him in Arizona by Bush, Forbes and even Elizabeth Dole is a natural outgrowth of his rise in New Hampshire and South Carolina, key early primary states.

Bush has apparently already has begun phone bank operations in Arizona, apparently part of efforts to lay the groundwork for a broader statewide operation. Bush reportedly plans to spend as much as $2 million in the GOP-dominated state.

The Texas governor will return to Arizona on Monday — his second visit in three weeks — and plans to name an Arizona campaign chairman during a swing that includes a fund-raiser in Tucson and a policy address in a Phoenix suburb. Earlier this month, Arizona Gov. Jane Hull embarrassed McCain by endorsing Bush. Bush is expected to return the favor by selecting Hull’s son to spearhead his Arizona operation.

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Gordon James, a Bush organizer in Phoenix, said Arizona is “extremely significant” to the Bush campaign. “It sounds far-fetched, but Arizona is on the map,” he said. Hull’s endorsement of Bush appears to have played a major role in Bush’s new-found interest in the state. The governor’s defection from the state’s favorite son was a big coup for Bush, although McCain’s camp downplays its relevance inside the state.

Gordon contends the governor’s endorsement was strategically significant, a sign that Arizona is winnable by an outsider. “When it’s real logical, it’s not necessarily so important,” he said. “But in this case, when it’s not so logical, it’s really important.”

Steve Forbes also sees the Hull endorsement as a sign that Arizona is up for grabs. Forbes spent nearly $4 million here in 1996 to win the state’s first GOP presidential primary, a feat that embarrassed McCain, who was marshalling Bob Dole’s forces at the time. The publisher appears ready to devote as much money as attention to Arizona as he did four years ago. Forbes has 12 staff members in Arizona, and has made four trips to the state since his official kick-off in March. He next plans to conduct a town hall meeting in the retirement community of Sun City on Oct. 29.

“We’ve been up and running since the day he announced,” said Bert Coleman, Forbes’ Arizona coordinator. “It seems it’s taken these other campaigns a while to figure out Arizona is not a slam dunk for any presidential candidate.”

In 1996, Forbes brutalized Bob Dole in a 1996 television campaign that set records for spending in Arizona. This year, his aides said, things will be different. “We are not going to just have an air campaign,” Coleman said. “In order to be very competitive in Arizona, we fully expect to assist Gov. Bush and his campaign in spending every dollar he has raised.”

Running hard in Arizona is something McCain has not had to do very often. He barely campaigned in Arizona in 1998, but he managed to amass a broad network of financial supporters. Bush even appeared in Scottsdale to help McCain raise reelection funds at a Western barbecue.

McCain jokingly says he welcomes Bush’s newfound interest in Arizona because of the financial boon to the state’s economy. After all, McCain said, his GOP rival travels “like an Oriental potentate. I really welcome (Bush and Forbes) spending all that money in Arizona,” he said.

All joking aside, recent polls show McCain has suffered as a result of his opponents focus on Arizona. A poll conducted by ASU’s Merrill showed Bush leading McCain 31 percent to 22 percent, with Steve Forbes trailing with 10 percent. A more recent poll, released earlier this week by Northern Arizona University, showed McCain ahead of Bush by 11 points, though the two were still close when considering the poll’s margin of error.

McCain dismisses the polls, particularly those taken by Merrill, who worked on McCain’s first congressional campaign. “I am not concerned. We are doing fine,” McCain said, attributing much of Bush’s strong showing in the state to “just name ID.”

McCain certainly has a bedrock of support in his home state. He has picked up endorsements from most of the Arizona GOP “Who’s Who,” including House Speaker Jeff Groscost, Senate President Brenda Burns and state school superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, along with an impressive donor list.

“Before it’s over this race between Bush, McCain and Forbes will be the most interesting, the most intense election in the history of Arizona,” ASU’s Merrill said.

Despite what the polls show and pundits say, McCain is still confident that, “We’re not going to have to spend a lot of money in Arizona. I’m known in Arizona. I’m known by our people. I’m known by our voters.”

And that may be part of his problem.

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