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After rejecting Donald Trump, Arizona’s John McCain navigates tough GOP path

PHOENIX — In his pursuit of a sixth term, Republican Sen. John McCain reluctantly stood by Donald Trump for months despite personal insults and the bombastic businessman’s string of controversial claims.

That tepid support ended earlier this month after the release of a 2005 recording in which Trump used crude, predatory language to boast about groping women. The Arizona lawmaker said the GOP presidential nominee’s behavior and “demeaning comments about women and his boasts about sexual assaults” made it impossible to offer even conditional support.

Some Republicans are clearly angry. Conservatives routinely boo McCain when Trump mentions his name at rallies in Arizona, and some are unwilling to back his candidacy over his disavowal of the nominee.

“It puts us into a very difficult position because I support the Republican candidates, but I will not support anybody who will not support our nominee, Donald Trump,” Phoenix resident Vera Anderson said this week. “So I will not support McCain.”

The 80-year-old senator and two-time presidential candidate still has a solid advantage in polls over Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, even as conservative Arizona grows more competitive in the presidential race. Democrat Hillary Clinton is investing money in the state and dispatching big-name surrogates, including first lady Michelle Obama and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

LOTS OF CAMPAIGN EXPERIENCE

McCain has displayed confidence, leaving Arizona to campaign for other Republican Senate candidates in closer races in Pennsylvania and Indiana.

His campaign experience — five Senate races, two House races and two presidential bids — shows. Before groups, he’s folksy, cutting self-deprecating jokes or nearly politically incorrect quips to loosen the crowd.

He gigs the Marine Corps (McCain was a naval aviator), tells a well-worn Irish joke (he says it’s the only ethnic barb he can tell without backlash) and often mentions his first campaign (“during the Coolidge administration,” he jests).

Then he swings through his top campaign topics, noting a list of things he’s done for Arizona before warning of the growing threats across the globe from Russia, China and the Middle East. He blames the man who vanquished him in 2008 — President Barack Obama — for many of the world’s problems.

The pragmatic senator who has worked with Democrats on immigration took a surprising stand on Supreme Court nominees, pledging this week that Republicans would unite against any pick from Clinton if she becomes president.

An aide later clarified that he will examine the record of anyone nominated for the high court and vote for or against that person based on their qualifications.

McCain has spent most of the year doing a delicate dance in offering lukewarm support of Trump even after the presidential nominee bashed McCain as a “loser” and “not a war hero” because he was shot down and captured during the Vietnam War.

The senator criticized Trump for making disparaging remarks about NATO, immigrants, Muslims and a Gold Star family who lost a son in Iraq but stuck by him until this month.

FRUSTRATED WITH TRUMP

McCain has grown visibly frustrated after reporters ask him about Trump, and his latest strategy essentially is to avoid the media. He’s dodged reporters from The Associated Press and other outlets after events and refused to answer basic questions about the race.

After Trump refused to say at the final debate whether he will accept the election results, McCain issued a sharp statement Thursday highlighting his 2008 concession, saying congratulating the winner and calling them “my president” is “the American way.”

Kirkpatrick is running ads that remind voters how McCain voiced his support for Trump on 60 different occasions. And she slammed him after his Oct. 8 reversal, saying “he missed the chance to show political courage and lead.”

Kirkpatrick portrays herself as a down-to-earth woman from rural Arizona who still wears the cowboy boots she saved to buy as a young waitress. She’s used the boots as the symbol of her campaign, tagging it on signs and using them as the kicker ending her commercials.

The two have clashed on foreign relations and health care. Kirkpatrick said on a Spanish-language radio talk show this month that McCain’s standard response to foreign problems is to turn to the military.

“John McCain’s solution to every crisis around the world is ‘send in the troops, more troops, more troops,’” she said. “I believe that we have to fight a smart, efficient, 21st century strategy to make the world and our country safer.”

McCain has hammered Kirkpatrick in ads on health care, running tape of her leaving a 2009 meeting with constituents angry about the law. She has called her vote for the 2010 law her proudest moment.

“It’s a disaster and it’s unraveling,” he said at an event this month.

Kirkpatrick acknowledged problems with the law but said McCain and other Republicans have spent the past six years trying to repeal it instead of working to fix its flaws.

“I hear from so many people who thank me for the vote and thank me that they’ve got health care,” she said in an interview. “We don’t want to go back to the time when people with pre-existing conditions couldn’t get health insurance.”

Despite the backlash from some in the GOP over Trump, others say there’s just no choice but McCain.

“John McCain knows more about what is going on in the world and how to deal with it than anybody in the United States Congress,” Republican Lisa Graham Keegan said. “And Congresswoman Kirkpatrick is a nice woman, but she can’t touch John McCain’s experience in the world or the respect that the rest of the world has for him.”

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