PHOENIX -- The hostility between John McCain and J.D. Hayworth played out in living rooms across the state Friday night as the contenders for U.S. Senate finally faced off in a debate.
Hayworth took out after what he said has been McCain's flip-flops over the years, mostly on the question of what should be done about the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. He said McCain, battling to keep his Senate seat, has been "reduced to a political shape-shifter.'
McCain, in turn, said voters in Hayworth's former congressional district ousted him because he promised to be a conservative but went to Washington to spend public money on "earmarks.'
"Congressman Hayworth was one of the big spenders,' the senator said.
The back-and-forth claims left Jim Deakin, the third candidate in the race, literally laughing.
"They're both the same,' he said
"Both of them have put themselves in a position to be corrupted,' Deakin continued. "If they would just stick with the United States Constitution with their legislation and if they would spend more time in Arizona than in Washington, D.C., they would not get caught up in these systems.
Deakin's role in the race itself became an issue.
Some of the "tea party' groups that had backed him until now have urged him to withdraw, saying every vote he gets is a vote taken away from Hayworth whom they find preferable to McCain. Hayworth himself repeated that claim on Friday.
But McCain said perhaps the reverse is true: A vote for Deakin is a lost vote for him.
"I have a constitutional right to be on this ballot,' Deakin responded.
During the hour-long debate in the studios of KTVK-TV in Phoenix, McCain repeatedly sought to tell voters they should send him back to Washington because of his "proven leadership.'
"The question is, who can be most effective,' McCain said.
"I have led the fight against Obama-care, I led the fight against the stimulus package,' he continued, saying he has "proven leadership.'
"You have not been effective,' Hayworth shot back. He said if McCain, even in the political minority, had led the fight against the president's health care plan he would have demanded the bill be read in its entirety.
"The Senate would have stayed in session so we could have defeated that bill instead of placidly signing off, going home for Christmas, and now talking about repeal,' Hayworth said.
Pressed after the debate for examples of his leadership skills, McCain said he had plenty but came up with only one: reform of the defense procurement process.
Much of the debate circled back repeatedly to the issue of the border and illegal immigration.
Hayworth repeatedly referred to McCain's co-sponsorship of an immigration reform plan with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. He said that plan amounted to "amnesty' for the people who had entered the country illegally.
McCain said it was a question of definition.
"Amnesty means no penalty,' he said. "In every bill that we had, obviously there were penalties that would be imposed.'
But McCain conceded that 2006 the legislation, which provoked a firestorm within the Republican Party, may, in hindsight, have been a bad idea.
"The American people spoke,' he said. McCain said he came around to the position that "we needed to secure the border first.'
McCain also found himself on the defensive for voting against tax cuts proposed by President Bush in 2001 and 2003. But he said there was a good reason for that.
"I predicted that spending had to be brought under control,' McCain explained.
"And it was not,' he continued. "We went from surplus to deficit and the American people rejected us.'
His vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program also came under question. He said the legislation was designed to "bail out the financial markets and stabilize them and also the housing market.'
But McCain said he led the fight against subsequent "stimulus' legislation and proposed tax cuts for business to actually provide true stimulus for the economy.
Deakin spent much of his time espousing his message of much smaller government. That includes defense spending.
"We have to have a strong military,' he said, as a constitutional obligation.
"We don't have to just keep having bases all over the world just because it feels good to have them there,' Deakin said.
McCain, however, took the opportunity to boast about his role in protecting Arizona military bases his confidence that they will be training sites for the proposed F-35 fighter.
"The best way to control our costs in our military is to stop electing career politicians that see our military as a world police force,' Deakin said.
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