Sen. John McCain once led the global warming debate on Capitol Hill, pledging to force repeated floor votes on cap-and-trade legislation until it passed.
"Over time we will not be elected Miss Congeniality in the Senate, but we will win," the Arizona Republican said in April 2006.
But McCain has gone on hiatus from the issue since losing the presidential election to Barack Obama. And he is likely to keep his distance even more over the next six months due to a primary challenge from a conservative former congressman that threatens to end his Senate career after four terms.
"The political climate has changed, and that's why you see this campaign-year conversion in John McCain," said J.D. Hayworth, who represented the Phoenix suburbs for 12 years, in an interview yesterday.
Hayworth, 51, has built a following among Arizona conservatives since losing his seat in Congress in 2007 by hosting a local radio talk show. While the program went silent last month -- McCain's lawyers filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission that they were not getting equal air time -- Hayworth is pushing ahead with an anti-establishment, anti-incumbent message that caters to the Tea Party movement.
The official Hayworth campaign begins Monday, and the conservative said he plans to challenge McCain over his shifting record on a range of issues, including global warming. McCain's advocacy for a cap-and-trade program, he said, was well out of touch with the mood of the state's Republican voters.
"I believe his famous quote is, 'I don't see how you can be a conservative and not support cap and trade.'" Hayworth said, referring to a line McCain often used during the presidential campaign. "Well, I sure can. And most Arizonans can."
McCain is not the only one-time cap-and-trade supporter facing conservative pressures this election year. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) has been distancing himself from past global warming efforts during his Senate primary campaign against former state House Speaker Marco Rubio. And Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) walked away from his vote last June on the House-passed climate bill to help sew up the GOP nomination for Obama's old Senate seat.
But McCain stands out like few others given his past advocacy for climate legislation, including a brutal GOP presidential primary season in 2007 and 2008 when several more conservative candidates trashed his efforts (Greenwire, Jan. 28, 2008).
McCain's allies said he has tried to lay low on the climate issue in recent months with the hopes of not riling up Arizona's conservative base and Hayworth's prospective candidacy. Even though that did not work, many still expect McCain to stay out of the direct line of fire when it comes to the Senate global warming and energy bill.
Instead, he is leaving the negotiations to two of his closest friends in Washington: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
"He's committed to this," said David Jenkins, director of government affairs at Republicans for Environmental Protection, a nonprofit group that campaigned for McCain in 2008. But after talks with McCain's staff, Jenkins has concluded, "They're not leading, but they hope there's something they can support."
Since the presidential election, McCain has deflected most questions about the specifics of the Senate climate debate by questioning the Obama administration's commitment to nuclear power. He has also said he has not had a single climate-related conversation with the president since the election. "But you can always hope," McCain said.
During last month's State of the Union speech, Obama mirrored a line that McCain often used during the 2008 campaign: that even climate skeptics can support a cap on emissions because it promotes U.S. competitiveness and incentivizes clean energy. While McCain stood and applauded, he said later he had not noticed the overture.
"I didn't catch it," McCain said. "I know he gave lip service to nuclear power and offshore drilling. Neither one of which has translated into any policy. His secretary of Energy says they won't recycle and they won't restore. That's a nonstarter, so I don't pay attention."
'A pretty principled guy'
Senators from both sides of the aisle say they expect McCain to re-enter the debate if and when the right time comes.
"I know those of us in cycle, and I am as well, you're cognizant of the politics that are out there," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is running for a second full term in November without a major GOP primary challenge. "But John McCain is a pretty principled guy, and I don't think he changes his stripes just because of the political winds that may be blowing out there. He might not be perhaps as vocal, but he's pretty principled in what he believes in."
"I'm going to take John at his word that he's very interested in a larger and more robust goal for nuclear power and that so far he thinks the proposals have fallen short," said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), who partnered with McCain last August on a tour linking climate change to the national parks located in both of their states. "And I take him at this word that he believes climate change is real and we have to act."
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the lead author with Graham and Lieberman on a combined climate and energy bill, said McCain is "engaged" on the legislative debate. But Kerry added, "I just think he's got a set of priorities."
Other Democrats have been less willing to cut McCain any slack. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), for example, fired back last week on a local Las Vegas television station after McCain criticized Obama for ending the funding at the Yucca Mountain permanent nuclear waste storage site in Nevada.
Reid -- who is also up for re-election -- said McCain is "a great name caller" who needed to forget about losing the presidential election to Obama.
"I'm very disappointed in how he's reacted," Reid said on the program, "Face to Face." "You know we've had some people who've run for president and lost, who've come back and been great statesmen. John Kerry is one example, Al Gore is another, Jimmy Carter. I just think he's got to get over this and move on to something else."
Like Hayworth, Don Bivens, the chairman of the Arizona state Democratic Party, said he is also hoping to capitalize on the different positions that McCain has taken during and after the White House campaign.
"Since he's run for president, he's moved to the right on pretty much every issue," Bivens said, citing McCain's views on immigration and opposition to Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Sonya Sotomayor, even though he had voted previously to confirm another liberal member of the court, Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
"If you went back, you'd hear words like 'moderate' and 'maverick'" before the election, Bivens added. "As far as I can tell, all of that's gone. He's not talked in those reformist ways in a very long time."
As for a general election against either Hayworth or McCain, Bivens said the front-runner for Arizona Democrats is Rodney Glassman, a Tucson city councilman and a U.S. Air Force judge advocate general reserve officer. The state's demographics, including a 5-to-3 Democratic majority in the House and a fast-growing population that did not live in the state when McCain was on the ballot in 2004, can contribute to a Senate win, he said.
And if McCain gets past Hayworth, Bivens said he doubts McCain would be able to convert back fast enough to a moderate for the general election. "We're going to be using any flip-flop he gives us and there are plenty of them," Bivens said.
Downplaying the challenger
Initially, Hayworth had McCain in his sights. A November 2009 telephone poll by Rasmussen had McCain holding a slight 45-43 edge. But a Jan. 20 survey had McCain comfortably ahead of Hayworth, 53-31. The pollsters said their results came just after former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's decision to campaign for her former White House running mate.
Other prominent political experts do not see much of a race shaping up either.
Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) told the Arizona Republic that his group FreedomWorks had no plans to get involved in the primary. "J.D. had a fairly short, undistinguished congressional career with virtually no initiative on his part," Armey said. "I just don't see any reason why we should be concerned about that race."
"I don't see any serious signs of trouble at this stage" for McCain, said William Dixon, head of the University of Arizona's political science department.
Dixon said McCain has played it smart by tilting right since the White House campaign. And absent a return from former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), now the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Dixon said he doubted the Democrats would be able to put up an opponent with enough name recognition statewide. McCain won re-election in 2004 by beating a little-known Democratic opponent, 77-21.
Hayworth chalked up the latest polling data to McCain's recent aggressive spending. And he downplayed Palin's upcoming campaign appearances and Armey's predictions as typical moves for the GOP establishment.
"I call him an army of one," Hayworth said of the former GOP leader. "If the Republican establishment doesn't want to heed the call of the people, then it leaves it up to other Republicans."
In the meantime, McCain will face a dilemma on what to do about a climate debate that Democratic leaders want to have this spring, well before Arizona's Aug. 24 primary.
"You probably have to wait until after the primary," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. "Senator McCain has veered away from previous positions on a number of issues for now. But that's not necessarily going to last forever."