PHOENIX - By the time the U.S. Senate Republican candidates completed the first question in a live televised debate Friday night, J.D. Hayworth had already blasted incumbent Sen. John McCain for supporting "amnesty" and McCain had mocked Hayworth for his role in a late-night infomercial.
The fast and furious debate in Phoenix also featured tea-party activist Jim Deakin, who said both of his opponents had failed to adhere to a strict reading of the Constitution and both failed to secure the U.S. borders. The primary election is Aug. 24.
With Hayworth lagging in polls and peppered seemingly nightly by ads highlighting his short stint as a lobbyist or as a pitchman for a company advertising free government money, the debate was Hayworth's first chance to gain needed ground.
And he wasn't pulling any rhetorical punches. He repeatedly called McCain a "convenient conservative," attacking the incumbent for a voting record that doesn't match a conservative philosophy - against the George W. Bush tax cuts, supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants and voting to bail out the financial market in the midst of the economic collapse in 2008.
"It's really sad to see John McCain, who should be revered as a statesman, basically reduced to a political shapeshifter," Hayworth said, joking that he wondered if the debate would feature another podium, depending on which McCain showed up.
"John has a record he does not want to run on and that's why he's engaged in this kind of attack ad," Hayworth said, before telling McCain the behavior was "really unbecoming."
McCain, often laughing off the criticisms from his two opponents, said Hayworth was being hypocritical, charging that the former congressman was "one of the big spenders" in Washington during his 12-year congressional career and a fan of earmarks.
During the wide-ranging debate, McCain blasted President Obama for setting a timeline for leaving Afghanistan, saying America needs to stay the course despite the loss of lives until that country has a functioning government. He said he was proud of his ongoing fight against earmarks. He pledged to "repeal and replace Obamacare" and extend the Bush tax cuts. And while he acknowledged his two opponents would fight in D.C., he stressed, "I will lead."
Hayworth said all of McCain's experience didn't save him from being "misled" on the bailout bill that he took such a leadership role on. And while he said he would work across the aisle, he criticized McCain's efforts on bipartisanship.
"The problem is bipartisanship, as defined by John McCain, is conservatives and Republicans caving in to what the left and the Democrats and their cheerleaders in the Washington media want," he said.
After McCain explained he voted against the tax cuts because he didn't believe there would be a commensurate drop in spending to offset them, Hayworth made a point of checking McCain's footwear to see if he was wearing flip-flops.
With Hayworth staking out the hard-line position on immigration throughout his campaign, Hayworth said he supported more troops and infrastructure on the border. He also criticized the "misguided notion of birthright citizenship," saying children of illegal immigrants should not be granted automatic citizenship.
Noting McCain had been calling him a "huckster" of late, Hayworth said, "I can think of no more blatant form of hucksterism than what we're seeing now from John McCain when it comes to the question of amnesty."
McCain countered that he never supported amnesty, which he defined as having no penalty for crossing the border illegally.
In response to a question about whether his ad to "build the danged fence" was a shift from past positions, McCain said after his 2006 comprehensive immigration reform effort failed, he heard the people and determined the border must first be secured. He warned that if drug cartels get a stronger hold, the violence happening in Mexico could spill across the border.
Deakin, for his part, said both of his opponents had failed.
"They both had decades to get our borders secure and get our immigration policy under control," he said.
The bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., don't understand what's happening in Arizona, Deakin said.
"They don't talk to the people. They sit up in their ivory towers and make regulations and pretend that they've done something so they can pat each other on the back," he said. "That is not acceptable."
Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at 573-4243 or email@example.com