End of the road for John McCain?

New poll shows senator vulnerable to GOP primary challenge

U.S. Sen. John McCain

U.S. Sen. John McCain

PHOENIX -- A new poll suggests that Sen. John McCain appears to be more vulnerable to a Republican primary challenge now than he was in 2010.

And the reason has less to do with McCain than with who might run against him.

Pollster Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling found that half of Republicans likely to vote in next year's primary disapprove of the job the five-term senator is doing, against 41 percent approval. And among those who identify themselves as "very conservative,' he approval rating drops to 21 percent.

At this point, with no formally announced opposition, Jensen said his survey found McCain in a statistical dead heat with two prospects: Matt Salmon and David Schweikert, both members of the state's congressional delegation. He has a much stronger edge over state Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, who has formed an exploratory committee.

Jensen said, though, that McCain could find himself in trouble if either of the two GOP congressmen get in the race. And the key, he said, is the own popularity.

While only 52 percent of those asked said they were familiar with Salmon, his positives outnumbered his negatives by a better than four-to-one margin. Schweikert, with slightly lower name ID, had a two-to-one favorable edge.

To understand why that's important, Jensen said, just look at the 2010 primary.

There, McCain faced off against former Congressman J.D. Hayworth. And Hayworth, a former TV sportscaster and a radio talk show host at the time of his announcement, had high name ID.

What he didn't have, said Jensen, was likeability.

"It's not like anybody could just run and be able to beat John McCain,' he said. "It has to be somebody who's popular -- or at least has the potential to raise a lot of money so they could become popular.'

And Hayworth?

"In the final Arizona poll we did on the primary in 2010, we found that more primary voters had a negative opinion of J.D. Hayworth than a positive one,' Jensen said. "Obviously, somebody that flawed is not going to be able to defeat John McCain.'

He said one issue for both Salmon and Schweikert is whether they're willing to give up their current safe congressional seats to go up against McCain.

"Or do the people get scared off by the money and McCain's past electoral track record?' Jensen said.

And it will take money: Jensen figures a foe would need to raise at least $10 million -- perhaps twice that -- to wage a successful primary challenge.

McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers said he's not concerned about the poll numbers. He said various polls ahead of the 2010 primary showed Hayworth running in a dead heat with McCain.

``Hayworth went on to get crushed by 24 points,' Rogers said.

He acknowledged that the political climate is ``challenging for all incumbents. ``But as recent election cycles have shown, candidates and campaigns matter.'

``In 2009 and 2010, several polls showed J.D. Hayworth in a dead heat wi

Jensen said if McCain survives a primary challenge he's pretty much a lock for another six years.

While polling numbers show potential Democrat candidates coming as close to four points of McCain, that ignores the fact that one out of four voters are undecided. And Jensen said those in that category are strongly Republican.

"At the end of the day these people will vote Republican before they will leave it blank, and certainly before they vote Democratic, even if they don't care for McCain,' Jensen said. And he pointed out that McCain is likely to get support from at least 17 percent of Democrats in a general election, making it difficult to defeat him if he gets that far.

The survey of 600 Arizonans, including 300 Republicans who say they usually vote in Republican primaries, was conducted in the first three days of May. The margin of error is 4 percent for all voters and 5.7 percent among just Republicans.

Public Policy Polling uses a combination of automated responses to calls to phones with land lines and an online survey of people who have cell phones.

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