TUCSON, Ariz. — Sen. John McCain has squared off in a sometimes testy debate with a former Arizona congressman hoping to take his job.
J.D. Hayworth portrayed McCain Saturday night as a flip-flopper on illegal immigration, while McCain painted his rival as a faux conservative who is lax with tax dollars.
And each launched some zingers at the other as the candidates met here in their second and final debate before the Aug. 24 primary.
The third candidate in the contest, political newcomer Jim Deakin, called McCain and Hayworth "career politicians" who have allowed the federal government to grow. The contractor and Navy Veteran promoted his credentials as a Washington outsider.
Hayworth entered the Senate race in February as a formidable threat to the four-term senator and two-time presidential candidate.
But polls show he has stumbled recently with McCain television ads have highlighting his role in a 2007 infomercial pitching free government grants.
McCain tried to solidify his apparent lead Saturday.
McCain said Hayworth would continue out-of-control spending that he blamed for Republicans losing their majorities in both chambers of Congress in 2006. Hayworth was one of more than two dozen of Republicans who met the wrath of voters in a devastating election cycle for the GOP four years ago.
"They brought Congressman Hayworth in 1994, and they pushed him out in 2006 because of the spending that got out of control," McCain said.
Hayworth fought back, saying an unsuccessful immigration overhaul that McCain once championed would have stressed Social Security and Medicare with millions of new American citizens.
"You are scarcely in a position, sir, to lecture us about fiscal responsibility," Hayworth told McCain.
Seated closely around a table with host Bill Buckmaster of Arizona Public Media, the candidates traded barbs and talked over each other throughout the hour-long debate.
Hayworth repeatedly referred to McCain being "rejected" by the American people in losing his 2008 bid for the presidency.
Hayworth tried hard to portray McCain as a supporter of "amnesty" for illegal immigrants – an unacceptable position to many of the conservative Republicans who will vote in the primary. It's a critique that Hayworth, a former talk-radio host, has hurled at McCain since even before he entered the race.
"President Obama wants to ignore existing law. Sen. McCain with his amnesty bill sought to erase existing law," Hayworth said.
McCain pushed back. He said he's never supported amnesty. McCain, who was once a prime sponsor of a comprehensive immigration overhaul, has eliminated much of the daylight between him and Hayworth.
Both now say emphatically that authorities must choke off the flow of illegal immigrants before Congress can discuss overhauling the immigration system or dealing with the millions of illegal immigrants now in the country.
McCain said Americans are weary of immigration reform because Congress broke a promise to beef up border security after granting amnesty to millions of illegal migrants in the 1980s.
"The American people don't believe us," he said. "That's why we have to secure the border first."