Former sportscaster aims to slay giant, take John McCain’s Arizona Senate seat

By Jonathan J. Cooper, AP
Saturday, July 24, 2010

In Ariz. Senate race, Hayworth hopes to slay giant

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — J.D. Hayworth has a busy resume for his 52 years — college football player, sportscaster, congressman, talk-radio host, even an infomercial pitchman. He’s hoping to add two more titles — giant slayer and U.S. senator.

Hayworth is aiming to topple four-term Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who has been a Washington presence for nearly 30 years. Hayworth entered the GOP primary in February as a formidable threat to McCain, which the senator took seriously, spending more than $10 million on the race in the last quarter alone.

The spending appears to have worked: Recent polls show McCain comfortably distancing himself from the challenger.

Undercutting Hayworth were recent details about his 2007 infomercial pitching free government money on behalf of a company accused of swindling customers out of thousands of dollars. McCain television ads called Hayworth a “huckster”; Hayworth’s wife Mary accused McCain of character assassination.

The nasty back-and-forth reflects a fierce contest that will be decided in the Aug. 24 primary.

McCain has the advantage of campaign cash — through the end of June he’d raised $17.5 million to Hayworth’s $2.4 million — and a superior organization. But Hayworth is hardly daunted by the tough odds, continuing to court voters aggressively: On Friday, his campaign launched a $260,000 television ad portraying McCain as a supporter of amnesty for illegal immigrants and linking him to President Barack Obama.

“They want to see honest-to-goodness border security, and they want an honest-to-goodness tax cutter in the United States Senate,” Hayworth says of voters. “I think we’re going to make history in the Republican primary.”

He’s counting on voters fed up with the status quo.

“It’s supposed to be a government by the people,” says Shirley Keinanen, 62, as she looks to a pair of nodding friends after a Hayworth speech. “We want to bring it back, and we think that people like J.D. can do that.”

After seven years on Phoenix television, 12 in Congress and three on AM radio, Hayworth had been something of a B-list local celebrity for more than two decades. His challenge to McCain shines a spotlight on his distinctive brand of boisterous partisanship and self-confidence.

Hayworth has long been a master of the quick sound bite and pithy quote.

“This new legislation is like handing a book of matches and a can of gasoline to a pyromaniac,” he said at a recent debate, referring to the financial overhaul President Barack Obama signed this week.

It’s a skill he’s been honing since a lackluster performance at right tackle ended his collegiate football career at North Carolina State and sent him to the broadcaster’s chair.

After bouncing between television stations in Cincinnati and the Carolinas, he landed a sportscasting gig in Phoenix in 1987.

Thanks to TV, Hayworth was already well-known in much of Arizona when he gave up the teleprompter and rode a Republican wave into the U.S. House in 1994, roundly defeating freshman Democrat Karan English as Republicans captured the House after 40 years of Democratic control.

Hayworth speaks with a booming voice — think of the classic sportscaster. When he’s on a roll, the words flow rapidly and his voice can rise to near a scream.

“He was always a bit blustery, obviously outspoken, fairly loud, famous for his one-liner quips,” said former Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., who served with Hayworth in the House and is supporting McCain. “But I don’t think he was an effective legislator.”

He didn’t seem to understand the art of reaching across the aisle to build coalitions in support of a bill, Kolbe said.

His asset was his mouth. Hayworth was a prolific spokesman for the GOP message and a reliable vote for the party. As for legislation, he highlights a bill he sponsored allowing the U.S. Forest Service to give up land for rural schools. He also pushed through measures promoting Indian rights and solar tax credits, and he brought millions home for local projects.

Hayworth was a member of the powerful Ways and Means committee and helped write two massive tax cuts under President George W. Bush, which were conservative priorities. But he also supported a Medicare prescription drug benefit — a leadership goal that was unpopular with fiscal conservatives.

He’s run afoul of some conservatives for his defense of earmarks — special federal funding requests for home-state projects. Fiscal hawks say they promote corruption. Hayworth says they take spending authority out of the hands of unelected bureaucrats, and he vows to continue supporting worthy projects.

Hayworth has built his challenge to McCain around his conservative position on illegal immigration, which became his signature issue during his final years in office.

But for all the immigration rhetoric, Hayworth is relatively new to the issue. He talked little about it in the 1990s and even supported a guest-worker program, which he now vehemently opposes.

Hayworth says he began to change his mind after the 9/11 attacks and when he began hearing from airline crews that illegal immigrants were flying freely across country.

“There are national security threats that should be apparent,” he says.

For half of his congressional career, Hayworth represented seven American Indian reservations, and he worked hard to push their priorities even after most of them were carved out of his district following the 2000 Census.

He ran into some trouble for it.

Hayworth received more than $150,000 from Indian tribes once represented by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in a 2006 public corruption investigation.

Running for a seventh term, Hayworth lost his seat to Democrat Harry Mitchell that year after a nasty and expensive battle. His connections to Abramoff were a liability. And when The Arizona Republic called him a “bully” and an “angry demagogue,” the labels stuck.

Physically, the 6-foot-4 Hayworth is a fraction of the heavyset television personality Arizona voters sent to Congress 16 years ago. Faced with potential health problems, he lost 100 pounds with stomach surgery in 2003 — an operation that dramatically shrunk his gut, thinned his face and left him almost unrecognizable to some.

Hayworth insists he’s not an angry guy, or a bully, but rather a deeply passionate politician prone to letting his emotions get away from him.

“With a guy like me, people mistake passion for fury,” he says.

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