McCain Faces Tough Criticism At Home

Home isn't always so sweet for Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, thanks to a small but vocal group of conservatives who feel the Arizona senator deserted them long ago.

Critics in the Grand Canyon state have been angry since McCain first ran for president in 2000 and cast himself as a middle-of-the-road alternative to President Bush.

They feel abandoned on a host of concerns dear to the party faithful, including:

--McCain's votes to require background checks for gun purchasers at gun shows; against Bush's early tax cuts; and for a patient's bill of rights, which opponents argued would have increased health insurance costs.

--The McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which Christian broadcasters say limits what they can tell voters before elections.

--The senator's support for an immigration bill that was defeated by conservatives, who said it amounted to amnesty for illegal immigrants.

In dusty Arizona, where more illegal migrants sneak over the border than anywhere else in the country, conservatives are particularly rankled that McCain endorsed the bill's path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.

Standing outside Phoenix's public library one hot June day, Chris Bassett, an advertising photographer who voted for McCain in two of his Senate campaigns, said the senator's immigration stance makes it hard to support his presidential run.

"The bill that he is pushing is more of an amnesty, as opposed to protecting the borders," said Bassett, who describes himself as a moderate conservative.

While the home-state critics aren't likely to cost him the presidential race or even Arizona's GOP primary, they have been a nagging and sometimes embarrassing problem for years.

In 2001, three groups formed the Recall John McCain Committee in an attempt to gather the 349,269 signatures needed to boot him from office.

Their official recall petition griped that in his "insatiable desire for massive media attention," McCain had "all but forgotten the people of Arizona who elected him."

After drawing a blitz of media attention, the group failed to gather enough signatures and collapsed a few months later. But the conflicts have persisted.

Last year, McCain supporters and opponents clashed publicly in a race for Republican chairman of the north Phoenix legislative district. In what insiders called a referendum on McCain, former Arizona Gov. Fife Symington was defeated by one of McCain's strongest critics.

And in May, a conservative state lawmaker called for McCain to step down because the senator had missed almost half of his congressional votes while campaigning for president.

"His one steady issue is that he is for himself as far as being president of the United States," said Rob Haney, the victor in the GOP district race. "And he'll take whatever political position that he thinks will enhance that."

The sentiment appears to be reflected in his fundraising at home. In the first quarter of the year, McCain raised less than $1.3 million of the almost $2.2 million Republicans raised in Arizona, according to an analysis by the Federal Election Commission.

Several of the other major candidates did much better at home, the FEC found. By comparison, one of McCain's rivals for the nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, took in $2.3 million of the almost $2.7 million raised by Republicans in his home state.

McCain says he isn't worried that people outside of Arizona will view the dissent as a sign that he can't keep people back home happy.

"I am confident that I retain the support of the overwhelming majority of the people in Arizona," McCain said.

Since first running for the seat previously held by GOP Sen. Barry Goldwater, McCain has consistently scored well with voters. In 2004 he won re-election with 77 percent of the vote -- despite conservatives' distaste for him.

Arizona's breakneck growth has helped. Long seen as a hotbed of old-time conservatism, a flood of new residents from California and elsewhere over the last 20 years has brought in more moderates.

McCain's supporters downplay the strength of any opposition.

"Whenever you have a senator in a home state -- any candidate in a home state -- and there's a vocal number opposed to him, I think maybe it looks a little more exaggerated than it is," said Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Pollster Bruce Merrill agrees that the senator is not in trouble.

"I would be dumbfounded if he couldn't win the Republican primary in Arizona," said Merrill, professor emeritus at the Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

But there is no question his relationship with conservatives is sour.

McCain hasn't been able to convince the most conservative of the state's four House members to endorse him. Rep. Trent Franks is backing conservative California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter instead.

A recent Arizona State University poll shows McCain's support slipping among Republican voters, dropping from 44 percent in late February to 32 percent in mid-April. Another Republican hopeful, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, captured about a quarter of Republicans in each of the two surveys.

Critics, such as state Rep. Russell Pearce -- who is leading the current call for McCain to resign -- say they aren't about to let up.

"You pay a guy to do a job, he ought to be there to do his job," Pearce said.

Associated Press writer Jennifer Talhelm reported on this story from Washington, D.C.