McCain tries to hold on in the Year of Trump

John McCain tries for a sixth term
John McCain tries for a sixth term

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    John McCain tries for a sixth term

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John McCain tries for a sixth term 02:50

Story highlights

  • Politicians are choosing to flee Trump, run toward him, or balance the line in-between
  • Arizona Sen. John McCain is walking that high wire as he campaigns for his sixth term in office

(CNN)Sen. John McCain is instantly recognizable to everyone in the foyer of the Swift Transportation office in Phoenix.

The Republican has been their US senator since 1986, in office longer than some of the people at this campaign stop have been alive. With just days to go before Arizona's August 30 primary, McCain is methodically making the rounds —from police association endorsements to speeches for high tech CEO's to this trucking company's town hall.
    McCain moves deftly from answering a question on the state's solar energy infrastructure to slamming the President's signature health care law, calling it an "unmitigated disaster" in Arizona. Throughout this town hall, he dabbles in self-deprecating jokes about being in office since Calvin Coolidge's presidency and then brings up reality TV star Snookie, of "Jersey Shore" fame. The 79-year-old McCain sees his age as a punchline, not a liability. The gathered crowd laughed and listened.
    "I thought long and hard before I decided to run for reelection," said McCain, his tone shifting to reflection. "This is a tough business and we all know campaigns are tough. I believe the nation needs the kind of knowledge and background I have on national security."
    There's little doubt what McCain believes will keep him in office for a sixth term — his decades of experience.
    In the political year dominated by the rise of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, established politicians are choosing to flee the real estate tycoon, embrace him or carefully balance the tenuous line between their establishment experience and his outsiderism. McCain is walking that high wire -- endorsing Trump but recently issued a statement criticizing Trump for his public spat with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the gold star parents of a US Muslim soldier killed in Iraq. In the process, McCain has sought to ward off a Republican primary challenger to his right, and a general election Democratic challenger he hopes to face in November.
    At the moment, McCain's efforts appear to be working. A CNN/ORC poll of Arizona voters out Wednesday, found that McCain has a significant lead over his primary challenger state representative Kelli Ward, as well as his expected Democratic opponent Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick. That same state poll found Trump up 5 percentage points to Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in the state.

    McCain's Republican Primary Challenger

    "I think it's time for you, and for me, to retire McCain" Ward enthusiastically told the crowd of about 75 supporters a the Phoenix restaurant, and the audience ate it up.
    Ward's line was expected, especially given that her campaign workers have "#RetireMcCain" on the back of their bright yellow t-shirts. The mood at this Ward meet-and-greet is squarely anti-establishment, and McCain is the ultimate established candidate.
    From left, Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, Democratic US Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, Republican Sen. John McCain and his GOP primary challenger Arizona state Rep. Kelli Ward.
    "I've actually voted for John McCain," said Daniel Monson, as he picked up a Kelli Ward yard sign. He stressed that his vote was in the past and he won't vote for McCain this year, saying he wants a tougher stance on immigration.
    "He's been in there since before I've been alive," said Rebecca Oakley, referring to the senator's tenure in office. "He's been in there before the internet. If you've been in there since before the internet, it's time for you to go."
    "Obviously there's an age difference," said Ward, pointing out she is about half of John McCain's 79 years. "Obviously there's a generational difference. He's been in Washington for nearly 40 years. Four decades in Washington. It's a long, long time and people are ready for that change."
    Ward projects youth and energy as she works her event, taking selfies with babies and running to her car to make fundraising calls before her next stop. But by nearly all measures, from fundraising to commercial ad buys to state polling, Ward remains a long shot. Closer, though, than any primary challenger in years, said Seth Leibsohn, conservative pundit and radio host in Phoenix. "She's a very serious candidate. John McCain hasn't faced that in a primary ever."
    That Ward is even registering among Arizona Republicans is why Leibsohn introduced the candidate on his radio show recently as the "little engine that could, taking on one of the GOP establishment's most famous names."
    Ward's outsider appeal is McCain's biggest risk in the primary, believes Leibsohn. "The mood of this country has changed, the mood of the conservative movement has changed. The mood of the Republican party has changed."
    But what hasn't changed is McCain's ability to win the home field, said Leibsohn. "He never stops. And he does a very good job during election years of reconnecting with his base."

    The Democratic Challenger

    As a Democrat, Kirkpatrick doesn't share much in terms of policy with Kelli Ward. But she does echo Ward's sentiment about McCain's senate seat: change.
    "It's time. John McCain has been in Washington for 33 years. And a lot of people feel he's out of touch with what's in Arizona," Kirkpatrick said.
    Kirkpatrick is expected to face McCain in the general election. She senses a different opening created for her in the year of Trump — McCain's continued support of Trump in the face of changing demographics in Arizona. Trump's sagging national poll numbers, hope Arizona Democrats, will nudge reliably Republican red Arizona, closer toward purple.
    It's a shift changing with the population of this border state. Pew Research Center data says the Latino population in Arizona is the sixth largest in the nation, making up 31% of the state's population. Arizona Democrats believe Trump's call to build a border wall and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants has created an opening in 2016.
    "What I don't like is John McCain continues to support Donald Trump in spite of the fact that Donald Trump insulted a gold star family. He said really racist things including immigrants and insulted John McCain himself. What I hear from people is that they feel John McCain is trying to save his political career and does not represent Arizona," Kirkpatrick said.
    McCain's campaign and his super PACs have already pivoted to the November election, rolling out anti-Kirkpatrick ads.
    The congresswoman hopes to galvanize the anti-Trump forces across Arizona and that adds up to her taking down her state's political Goliath in the general election. Her race to take McCain's seat remains a tight calculus. In 2012, Mitt Romney won the state's 11 electoral votes by 9 points.
    "This race is going to be close," Kirkpatrick said.

    McCain, the Closer

    If McCain has any doubts, he's not sharing them as the primary ticks closer. This month, as CNN followed him at campaign events in Phoenix, a smiling McCain paused before our camera to say, "Campaign's gone very well. We're doing very well. We're very confident."
    Kirkpatrick's campaign has issued attack ads and statements about McCain's support of Trump despite the GOP presidential nominee's public battle with the gold star family. McCain remains steadfast in his support of his party's nominee, saying, "I've made my position extremely clear."
    In response to Khizr Khan's call for McCain to withdraw his support of Trump, McCain said, "I understand his anger and frustration as only a grieving family can. I will make my decisions based on what I think is best for America."
    McCain's humility remains plainly visible, calling 2016 the "race of his life." But he follows up by adding this, "I've said that in every race I've been in. That's why I've won."