The GOP changed around John McCain -- and now he's fighting to get re-elected

Manu Raju John McCain toughest race yet origwx allee_00024110
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Story highlights

  • McCain is running for reelection and it'd be his 5th term
  • The party has changed a lot in 30 years

Phoenix (CNN)Sen. John McCain is under siege: Navigating the cross-currents of Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, facing a challenger pushed by the Democratic establishment and being a Washington veteran of more than three decades in a year dominated by outsiders.

But he seems to be reveling in it all.
    After being peppered last week with Trump questions at a news conference in Phoenix, McCain said it was time to wrap up: "Surely, there's one more question about Trump?" At an event with freshmen GOP senators, McCain rattled off one-by-one the long list of Arizona politicians who failed to become president - everyone from Republican Barry Goldwater to Democrat Mo Udall and including himself. "Arizona may be the only state in America where mothers don't tell their children that someday they could be president of the United States."
    McCain isn't trying to be president any more. He's just trying to keep his job in the Senate. But he isn't letting any of it get to him -- at least not yet.
    As he grabbed lunch with a couple of his Senate colleagues, he turned to a CNN reporter standing nearby and said to the restaurant manager in his acerbic style, "This is one of those scum media guys."
    Not long before that, he was in between campaign stops and talking to the media scum about his campaign for a sixth Senate term.
    "I enjoy it," McCain said during a car ride in between campaign events, noting that he's been on a frenetic pace all cycle. "With all the turmoil that's going on, with all the unexpected things that have been happening on both sides, both Democratic and Republican, then of course I have to continue to work as hard as I possibly can."
    In a wide-ranging series of interviews in Phoenix, the 79-year-old McCain reflected on his long career in Washington, grappled with the changing politics in his party and came to terms with the rise of Trump as his party's standard-bearer headed into November. He said he's still irked by George W. Bush's campaign tactics in the 2000 presidential race, while also suggesting he may have handled the Iraq war debate differently in 2002 if he knew then that Saddam Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction.
    Asked how his party has changed in the eight years since he seized the GOP nomination, only to lose to Barack Obama in the general election, McCain said: "I think that there has been a departure of many of the traditional base which was as we were talking about earlier a blue-collar conservative factory worker person who has seen that basically their job goes away, or jobs that have not improved their lives."
    On Trump's rise, he added: "I also think that there is a popularity factor with Donald Trump; he was on TV for what 14 years and there's that kind of attractiveness of a guy who says, 'You're fired!' I think there's that element, the celebrity kind of Kardashian effect as well. But having said all those things, you've got to give the guy credit. You have to give the guy credit for running a very successful campaign."
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    With the party establishment now vilified by the GOP base, McCain says he has to overcome the antipathy towards Washington in a general election contest against his Democratic foe, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. But he still seems to lament the fact that after a career battling pork-barrel spending and angering his own party, he's viewed as a card-carrying member of the party establishment.
    "I'm always amused that the maverick is now a part of the establishment," McCain said. "Well I used to be called a maverick. Now I don't know."
    To highlight, his indepedent bona fides, McCain nearly accused one of his GOP colleagues -- Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby -- of corruption for pushing a $225 million project resisted by the Navy, but that would benefit Alabama.
    "That's the taint of corruption," McCain said. "When you do things like that, what else can you call it?"
    Shelby has defended the project as a matter of good public policy.

    Arizona's shifting electoral tide

    McCain faces nominal challenges in his August GOP primary, but the fight against Kirkpatrick could be close -- polls suggest the race will be neck-and-neck. What makes the race for McCain particularly challenging is the conflicting pressures Trump's candidacy creates. McCain needs both committed Trump supporters and some of the real estate tycoon's most vocal critics -- namely Hispanics -- to both come to the polls for him in November. That balancing act is reflected in how McCain is approaching Trump. While McCain chides him on certain issues, including Trump's criticism of Prisoners of War like himself, the GOP senator also says it would be "foolish" to ignore the will of the legions of Trump voters.
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    Democrats target McCain, Arizona

    With Trump at the top of the ticket, Democratic leaders are growing confident in Arizona as part of their push to retake the Senate majority. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has informed his top lieutenants to keep their focus trained on the McCain race, according to people familiar with the matter.
    Indeed, Trump overwhelmingly won Arizona's March primary -- with nearly 50% of the vote and winning all counties except for one sparsely populated region in Eastern Arizona. So McCain can't distance himself from Trump entirely.
    "There is a strong tea party movement in Arizona," McCain said. "It may not be quite as vigorous as it was but it is still out there and that's why you see this frustration and anger that people feel and there is an added dimension in Arizona because we're a border state and that is border security obviously."
    McCain's involvement on immigration issues presents a challenge in his border state. With hardliners attracted to Trump's rhetoric, many of those same voters have vilified McCain for repeatedly trying to push through a comprehensive immigration bill, which would have created a path to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants.
    During his 2010 Senate primary, McCain toughened his rhetoric on the issue, cutting an ad with the now-infamous words: "Complete the danged fence."
    Asked if he still believed that, McCain said, "Sure." But he quickly cautioned, saying: "But that fence is not a wall," pointing to technology, fencing and other barricades that could help prevent the heroin smuggling coming across the border.
    And he questioned Trump's central policy plank of building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and demanding that Mexico pay for it.
    "I don't know what he means," McCain said. "I don't know what it means he has not yet explained how you do that."
    Kirkpatrick, a 66-year-old House member who lost after one term in 2010 only to win again in 2012, said that McCain has "changed" on the immigration issue over the years.
    "I'm expressing the concerns I hear from people. And really based on the hateful racist things that (Trump) has said especially about women, especially about immigrants, especially about minorities -- even John McCain -- and John McCain continues to say, 'I will support Trump.'"
    Yet, Kirkpatrick has her own challenges, namely being tied to an unpopular Obama, Hillary Clinton and her support of Obamacare, which has had problems in their state. In the interview, Kirkpatrick said she'd vote for the law again if she had a chance -- "I really support people getting affordable healthcare." Yet, she also said she'd skip the Democratic National Convention in July, just as McCain plans to skip his.
    "I've never gone to the conventions; I've always had hotly contested races and just have been in Arizona talking with voters at that time," Kirkpatrick said.
    While McCain is confident, he is warning his party to pay attention to his state.
    Asked if Arizona is becoming a blue state, McCain said: "Yes," pointing to how voters split in thirds between Democrats, independents and Republicans, with 50% of school children now of Hispanic descent. "I do think the state is becoming more and more centrist. Since Barry Goldwater, it has been largely Republican."

    Anger over Bush 2000 and a shift on Iraq

    McCain says he rarely regrets his past mistakes in political campaigns -- and he doesn't have bad dreams about other episodes in his life, including being captured by the North Vietnamese and tortured during the Vietnam War. He doesn't think he could have done anything differently to change the outcome of the 2008 election, and defended his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Yet in his 2000 race, McCain is still irked by the smear campaign launched by operatives tied to George W. Bush contending that the Arizona senator fathered an African-American child. (The McCains adopted a Bangaldeshi daughter.)
    McCain, then a Prisoner of War, in 1967.
    "There are very few things I resent in a campaign because campaigns are tough," McCain said. "But, when thousands and thousands, I don't know how many thousands, of calls were made in South Carolina saying, 'Did you know the McCains have a black baby?' That's just something I won't get over. And that I might've lost anyway, maybe probably, but I just don't think there's a place for that."
    McCain added: "I blame people associated with Bush and supporters of him, but I don't know specifically who was responsible for it."
    Now, McCain laments the personalization of the attacks launched by Trump, whether it's calling Marco Rubio "Little Marco," Ted Cruz "Lying Ted" or Hillary Clinton "Corrupt Hillary."
    "It bothers me a lot," he said.
    After Bush was elected, McCain became a major proponent of the Iraq war -- and he suggested in an interview last week he may have pursued a different policy had he known in 2002 that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction.
    McCain and Palin on the presidential campaign trail in 2008.
    "I think that I would have tried to pursue the policies of George Herbert Walker Bush which was containment as they did with Operation Provide Comfort and others," McCain said, referring to the 1991 operations to help defend Kurds in Northern Iraq. "But at the time if given the same information that I was given at the time, I would take the same vote" to authorize military force in 2002.
    Given his long career and prominent role in the party, McCain boasts of having "100% name ID" in his state. Yet he knows full well that is a double-edged sword.
    "That's why I'm campaigning every day, that's why I'm not going to the convention," McCain said. "Anybody in this environment that would take a reelection in stride or for granted does not have an appreciation for the tumult that's out there amongst the electorate. And I'm confident of victory but to take anything for granted would be foolish."