To hear Stu Starky tell it, there are two John McCains.
There is the “Meet the Press” McCain who is beloved by the national media and has emerged as the X-factor in this year’s presidential campaign.
Then there is the Arizona McCain, who is seldom seen or heard from.
[IMGCAP(1)] “People in Arizona are independent and they don’t like people campaigning from ‘Meet the Press’ or Jay Leno,” said Starky, an eighth-grade math teacher in Phoenix who is McCain’s Democratic challenger this fall.
Since the beginning of the year, the Arizona Senator has been on “Meet the Press” three times, according to Roll Call tabulations.
And since last standing for re-election in 1998, McCain has emerged as perhaps the most popular politician in the country due in large part to his near-miss Republican primary challenge to George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential race.
He was courted by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to run as his ticketmate in November; since endorsing Bush, he has emerged as a major surrogate for the president.
In an interview late last week, McCain said that he takes the race “seriously” despite being a heavy favorite.
“The list of retired Senators is filled with people who took opponents for granted,” added McCain.
Starky, however, is not unaware of the task before him, referring to McCain as “the toughest guy in America to challenge.”
“I’ve always been in races that are impossible to win,” said Starky. “This is the closest one I have ever been in.”
This is Starky’s third run for office in the roughly eight years he has lived in Arizona.
In 1998, he took 33 percent against then-Rep. Bob Stump (R) in the overwhelmingly Republican 2nd district.
Stump spent $246,000 to Starky’s $29,000 on that contest.
In 2000, Starky tried to make the ballot as a write-in candidate against Sen. Jon Kyl (R) because no Democrat had filed to run.
He fell short of the required signatures to make the ballot, and Kyl won with 79 percent.
Undeterred, Starky challenged state Rep. Barbara Leff (R) in 2002 for an open Senate seat in a district that had 20,000 more registered GOPers than Democrats. Leff won that race 64 percent to 36 percent.
Starky said his past defeats have done little to dull his enthusiasm for politics. But he concedes that his decision to run against McCain is based on providing a Democratic alternative to Republican favorites, not on a belief that he can win.
“It is important for the Democratic ticket to have somebody in this position to go out and talk about issues,” said Starky. “When I got into this race I didn’t care who the opponent was.”
Although McCain had received 69 percent and 56 percent in his past two re-election races, Starky believes that the Senator is vulnerable this time around.
“If the Democratic Party would have put one of their candidates with money and national recognition [into the Senate race], they could have beaten this guy,” said Starky.
Starky will not even come within shouting distance of McCain on the fundraising front. McCain had $1 million in the bank as of Aug. 18 to Starky’s $925.
McCain’s re-election prospects were not always so bright.
In early 2003, he flirted with retirement; later that year Rep. Jeff Flake (R) decided against a primary challenge to McCain.
With a clear primary field for McCain, state and national Democrats decided against making a serious challenge to him, choosing instead to focus their energy on defeating Kyl in 2006. State party Chairman Jim Pederson is seen as the most likely candidate.
Paul Hegarty, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said that Starky is likely to benefit from the field operation being put in place for the presidential campaign.
“We see our job as getting him that base vote of 40 percent,” Hegarty said.
Even that could prove tricky, though. Since his presidential bid, McCain has become an iconic figure among independents and even many Democrats.
Starky said that when Kerry was flirting with naming McCain as his vice presidential pick he struggled to bring Democrats together behind his candidacy.
“That all ended with his endorsement of Bush,” said Starky. “The first thing independents and Republicans say is that, ‘This is the hardest thing you could do.’”
In the face of that kind of pessimism, Starky still believes there is a possibility he will solve the complex equation of defeating McCain come November.
“This is the perfect storm,” he said. “This one is not going to be a 40-point loss.”