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Arizona was his land of opportunity

McCain's first race would set the tone.

May 30, 2008|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

MESA, ARIZ. — When John McCain arrived in the Valley of the Sun nearly three decades ago, he was weighed down with enough negatives to sink most budding politicians.

Some Arizonans dismissed him as a carpetbagger shopping for an available House seat -- and a future in Washington politics. Others were annoyed that he had left the wife who waited valiantly for his return from a Hanoi prison, and that he had then married a much younger bride. His political opponents derided his marriage into Arizona's Hensley beer distributor fortune as a "money-in-law" arrangement to boost his campaign coffers.

It was a daunting start in his quest to retool himself from Navy war hero to political sensation.

"I was viewed with resentment by some for my lack of an Arizona pedigree," he acknowledged in a recent speech in Prescott, Ariz., a stop on his current campaign -- this one as the presumed presidential nominee of the GOP. "And in truth, I did not know as much about the state as one of its representatives to Congress should know."

In the end, it didn't matter. When a House seat opened in 1982, McCain bested three others in the Republican primary and trounced the token Democratic opposition in the heavily conservative state.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, June 21, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
McCain's first race: A May 30 article in Section A about the start of John McCain's political career in the early 1980s said that Mesa, Ariz., "soon would be the state's second-largest city." It should have said "third-largest city."

He was reelected in 1984 and then moved up, winning four Senate campaigns in a row. Although a moderate in a traditionally conservative state, he transformed himself into one of Arizona's favorite sons.

But it was in that first run that McCain showed his political mettle.

His life perhaps half-done, his war heroics behind him, McCain had tasted the nectar of official Washington as the Navy's liaison to the Senate and was eager to forge his own way. In what many describe as typical McCain-style determination, he plunged right in.

Though new to politics and Arizona, McCain quickly assembled a circle of influential friends and wealthy backers. And he was not shy about running on his record as a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war.

Some people look back and realize that in the early 1980s, McCain already was trying to position himself for higher office. But in his political debut, McCain showed he could be impulsive and sharp-tempered -- traits that still haunt him politically.

"I was in my 40s and in a hurry," he said in his autobiography. To wait, he said, "I had neither the time nor the patience." While other aspiring politicians mapped out 10-year plans to capture a seat in Washington, McCain worried that to sit out even one election cycle would mean "my chances were diminishing by the day."

Colleagues recall how he ignored the searing desert heat -- and the risk of skin cancer -- as he campaigned, refusing to wear a hat or tote an umbrella to ward off the sun. His knuckles rapped on 15,000 or so doors that summer. "Let's go hit the bricks!" he liked to say.

It was by no means a solo effort.

His father-in-law put him on the payroll as a public relations man for the statewide beer distributorship, giving him the opportunity to meet business executives and gain access to fundraiser lists -- crucial for a political novice.

McCain also leaned on his Washington connections, old friends such as Sens. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and John G. Tower (R-Texas), his political mentor. All were important in securing endorsements for McCain.

Most fortuitous of all was the fact that the veteran Republican officeholder in the Phoenix area, Rep. John J. Rhodes, had decided to retire -- leaving the 1st Congressional District wide open.

McCain and his wife wasted no time house-shopping in the district. The day Rhodes announced he was bowing out, McCain listened to the news conference with a phone at one ear while talking to his strategist, Jay Smith, on another phone. Then Smith could hear McCain talking to someone else. It was McCain's wife, Cindy. "Did you buy it? Did you get it? Did you find it?" Then there were whoops of joy as McCain told Smith they had just gotten a house in the 1st District.

"We went into serious let's-make-it-happen mode," Smith said. "I was enthusiastic and confident in my abilities and in his to see a way to victory. But I knew he would have to work harder than the others."

For McCain in Arizona, everything was new. He had been born and raised in a military family, his father and grandfather former admirals, and he was a celebrated pilot shot down over North Vietnam. Politics would be an entirely different adventure.

In the sprawling 1st District, hot issues included suburban growth, the environment and water rights. The Phoenix area was growing rapidly, and Mesa soon would be the state's second-largest city. The border with Mexico was not far away, and angst over illegal immigration was beginning to boil. The area was deeply conservative -- home to retirees starting over in the nation's Sun Belt and a large Mormon population.

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