Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had his first debate tonight with his challengers, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth and conservative activist Jim Deakin, hosted by 3TV in Phoenix. And one thing was made very clear, as if we didn’t know it already: McCain and Hayworth really don’t like each other, and they’re not trying to hide it as they head toward the August 24 Republican primary.
“Congressman Hayworth is a pretty persuasive fellow,” McCain said early on. “After he was voted out by his constituents he became a lobbyist, and after that a talk show host, and after that an infomercial late night star.” Hayworth was first elected to the House in the Republican wave of 1994, and went on to lose re-election after six terms in the Democratic wave of 2006.
“John claims he’s a Ronald Reagan Republican, and right out of the gate he’s violating the 11th Commandment,” Hayworth responded a short while later. (Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment was, “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.”) “Now I will admit I made a mistake making that informercial, but I’m willing to admit my mistakes.” By contrast, said Hayworth, McCain isn’t admitting his mistakes in voting against the Bush tax cuts, and in having supported amnesty for illegal immigrants.
McCain at one point criticized Hayworth for blocking reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Then he added: “And by the way, I never supported amnesty.”
This caused the third candidate, Deakin, to laugh out loud. “I’m sorry, you never supported amnesty?” said an incredulous Deakin. “In 1986 you did support amnesty.” He then went on to give his own answer against bailouts, continuing to snicker at McCain.
Hayworth accused McCain of morphing himself into a stronger conservative in order to win the primary, abandoning his positions on immigration reform, support for cap and trade, and opposing the Bush tax cuts: “And really it’s unbecoming of you, John. You’re not a statesman anymore, you’re a political shapeshifter.”
McCain went on to accuse Hayworth of having fought the anti-porkbarrel efforts of folks like himself and Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake: “He called us ‘jihadists.’ He sponsored earmarks. This is corruption. My friend Dr. Coburn [Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK)] says this is the gateway drug to corruption. And that’s why J.D. Hayworth was voted out by his constituents, because Republicans let spending get out of control.”
At one point, Hayworth said something that just seemed designed to get McCain angry: “John, if you had told the truth about Barack Obama the way you’re spreading falsehoods about me, you might be President of the United States right now.” In fact, McCain pretty much kept his composure, with no great deviation from the rest of the debate — that is, showing a mirthful contempt for Hayworth.
Deakin was asked whether his presence in the race would play a spoiler, taking conservative votes away from Hayworth. “I don’t care whether anybody tells me to drop out of this race or not,” said Deakin. “I have a Constitutional right to be on this ballot. And if either of my opponents had stuck to the Constitution, I would not be in this situation today.”
Hayworth then said that a vote for Deakin was one less vote towards getting McCain out of office — to which McCain said that any vote for Hayworth was a vote that could have gone to Deakin. McCain also thanked Deakin for his service as a veteran, and recognized that Deakin qualified for the ballot and had a right to be there.
He also lambasted Hayworth for having starred in a 2007 infomercial promoting a company’s questionable (and ultimately expensive) seminars to receive “free money” in government grants: “That’s not conservative, nobody can call themselves a conservative when they engage in that kind of activity.”
McCain also insisted that he never was for “amnesty” during the 2006 immigration debates: “‘Amnesty’ means no penalty. In every bill we had, obviously there were penalties that would be imposed.” He then played up his current calls for securing the border, and his challenge to President Obama to come visit the border and see for himself that it is out of control.
“John McCain’s campaign called me a huckster,” said Hayworth. “Well I can think of no greater form of hucksterism than what were seeing from John McCain.” Hayworth said that McCain only has one co-sponsor for his plan — his fellow Arizona Senator Jon Kyl — and that McCain also sits on the Homeland Security Committee that has jurisdiction in the matter. “It seems your good friend Joe Lieberman could have already held a markup on the bill,” said Hayworth, but nothing has been done — with Hayworth declaring the plan to be merely an election ploy.
Hayworth also criticized McCain for his seemingly bipartisan record: “Bipartisanship — that may sound good to the chattering class and the Georgetown cocktail set, but it fails to impress Arizona.”
Deakin then pointed out that Hayworth has worked with Democrats, too. “The Congressman did cross the aisle, he did work with opponents of the other party,” said Deakin, saying that Hayworth had voted to raise the debt ceiling.
In the end, McCain touted his record of opposing President Obama’s proposals on issues like health care, taxes and more, plus the support he has received from many conservative organizations that have endorsed him: “They know I’m going to go back to Washington not only to fight, but to lead.”
The bottom line: It’s unclear whether any true changes to the status quo occurred tonight. McCain went into this debate leading Hayworth by 52.3%-30.6% in the TPM Poll Average. Both candidates threw some punches and took some punches, but overall McCain’s solid enough performance ought to be sufficient to keep him going. Furthermore, Hayworth wasn’t helped by the fact that Deakin was there to constantly remind restless conservative voters that Hayworth too was part of Washington. Then again, I’m not an Arizona Republican voter, so let’s see what they think.
And one other thing: The candidates will be debating again Saturday night, on Arizona Public Media. Let’s see how they do in round two.
(ed. note: All quotes used herein are rush transcriptions, and may be subject to future editing.)
Late Update: Here is part 1 of the debate:
Further clips can be found here.