GREEN VALLEY, Ariz. — Times are strange for a recovering maverick.
"You've been the first one who's run across the aisle," a woman seated in front of Sen. John McCain said accusingly.
"Do you have a question?" he snapped. "Do you have a question, really?"
"How can we believe you now if in the past you were so different?"
The question could have come from any of the 150 people who filled a rec center in this retirement community 30 minutes south of Tucson. Even among loyalists, it looms.
Who is the real John McCain?
The 2008 Republican presidential nominee is facing his toughest re-election battle in years and has responded with a harder conservative persona, talking tough about border security and government spending at every town hall he conducts.
Earlier this year McCain bizarrely declared, "I never considered myself a maverick," though he long ago acquired the label — and reveled in it — for a willingness to work with Democrats on immigration and campaign finance reform, and to challenge his party, a rebellious fighter pilot turned politician.
The reinvented McCain has all but disowned past work on immigration. He recently helped block legislation to improve transparency of corporate money in campaigns.
Such are the currents of the 2010 midterm elections.
Moderate Republicans are trapped between voters who want more cooperation in Washington and tea party types demanding universal opposition to the Democratic agenda.
Some, like Gov. Charlie Crist, have chosen to veer from the right, although Crist played up that side in his bid to become McCain's vice presidential running mate. Crist felt the tea party heat and left the Republican Party to run for U.S. Senate as an independent. But most have gone the way of McCain, who started to drift right in his presidential run.
Confronting McCain is J.D. Hayworth, former congressman and radio host who brands himself "the consistent conservative." Attaching himself to the tea party, Hayworth attacks McCain's work on immigration reform, which included a path toward citizenship some consider "amnesty," support for climate change legislation and opposition to a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Polls and fundraising suggest McCain will win the Aug. 24 primary. But Hayworth remains enough of a problem that McCain is working tirelessly to ensure he returns to Washington for a fifth term. Earlier this year, when the race was tighter, McCain had to call in Sarah Palin, his 2008 running mate, to lend tea party credibility, a remarkable change of fortune.
• • •
McCain pops from library to senior center to cookout, talking to small- and medium-sized groups. The media horde that used to hang on his every word is gone, as is the energetic theme music. The crowd that showed up at an elementary school in Mesa on a recent Friday waited to the easy groove of Miles Davis.
It's a stark difference from the presidential trail, a run that solidified his status as the most recognizable member of Congress. McCain, 73, is convinced he could have taken the country in a different direction. Certainly, it's hard to fathom a health care overhaul under his watch.
"I think voters were against his age and they saw a lot of promises in (Barack) Obama," said Jan Haeger, 75, a McCain supporter. "He should have been president. We would be in a better place."
McCain masks disappointment with humor. "After I lost the election, I slept like a baby," he said in Mesa. "Sleep two hours, wake up and cry. Sleep two hours, wake up and cry."
After meeting with workers at a new Home Depot distribution center in Tolleson, outside Phoenix, McCain conceded the defeat still weighs on him. "But you have to respect the verdict of the people. As soon as the election was over, I started back here in Arizona knowing I would have a tough re-election fight. I could tell the people were very unhappy."
• • •
McCain channels unease into two areas: government spending and immigration. He has long disavowed pork barrel spending, a hallmark of his former maverick status. He flashes that today, saying Republicans lost control because they ran up debt.
But the anger is reserved for President Obama and Democrats, who he tells crowds are endangering the future of children. He bashes the stimulus — "a total failure" — and bailouts, even though he voted for the $700 billion bank rescue. McCain now says he was misled.
Not long ago, McCain was leading the way with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy on legislation that would have created a path to citizenship for millions of illegal residents. Conservatives viewed the 2007 plan, and McCain, as weak. So he started to emphasize border security in the presidential race and now says it must come before anything else, even promising to filibuster legislation.
McCain has endorsed Arizona's new law that would require people to carry papers and present them if stopped for a crime.
At town halls, someone inevitably asks about his past support for "amnesty," a word that draws McCain's ire. When a woman wondered what could be done for the millions who have been in the United States a long time, McCain tersely replied, "They broke our laws by coming here illegally no matter when they came here." The crowd applauded.
Even at his age (his 74th birthday is five days after the primary) McCain displays the scrappy side that endeared him to so many. Smartly dressed in a navy blazer, khaki pants and expensive black Italian loafers, he energetically paced the rec center for more than an hour, answering questions with humor and tenacity.
"Show me one place where I'm wrong. Facts are stubborn things, my friend," he challenged a man who suggested he was running a dirty campaign. McCain has highlighted Hayworth's pork barrel inclinations as a member of Congress and ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Outside, standing in a parking lot that oozed with heat, Dick Hengl, 72, also paced — with a protest sign. "He's a Democrat in Republican clothing," said Hengl, who spends several hours a day walking the desert looking for illegal immigrants, Border Patrol on his cell phone speed dial.
"I held my nose and voted for him for president," Hengl said. He said support for Hayworth is stronger than McCain in Green Valley but conceded that sentiment is not true statewide.
Indeed, the latest polls show McCain with a commanding lead, and the hard right turn has played a role. But victory may come at a steep price.
"His image is really one big fuzzy thing now," said David Berman, senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. "He jumped so far to the right, I don't know how he's ever going to get back to the middle."
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com.