updated 2/15/2010 1:22:30 PM ET 2010-02-15T18:22:30

Former congressman J.D. Hayworth is kicking off a campaign challenging John McCain for his Senate seat — setting up a showdown between well-known Republicans that promises to be McCain's toughest re-election battle.

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Hayworth, a conservative talk-radio host, is starting with a rally in Phoenix on Monday followed by a three-day statewide tour.

Conservatives in Arizona have long been skeptical of McCain, who carved out a niche as a maverick senator working with Democrats on key issues.

But McCain has consistently evaded political threats from the right and lately has staked out solidly conservative positions.

McCain also plans to campaign Monday, with a group of mayors set to announce their support for him at an American Legion lodge in Tempe.

Hayworth is positioning himself as the race's reliable conservative in contrast to an erratic McCain who Hayworth says can't be trusted to support Republican values.

Hayworth notes a series of McCain flip-flops that the talk show host calls "campaign-year conversions" on issues including gays in the military, climate change, campaign finance and immigration.

Big name conservative backers
He's lined up big-name conservative backers including Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his tough policies targeting illegal immigration, and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.

McCain has aligned his own list of prominent conservative backers, including his former running mate Sarah Palin and recently elected Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, both of whom will campaign for McCain in Arizona next month. He also has the support of Arizona's GOP congressional delegation, including Rep. Trent Franks, who endorsed one of McCain's opponents in the 2008 presidential primary.

Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist has also backed McCain, saying he's been a consistent voice opposing government spending. McCain has, however, opposed tax cuts, saying taxes should only be cut in conjunction with spending.

McCain is the clear front-runner, well-known after two presidential campaigns and almost three decades representing Arizona in Congress. He also has more than $5 million in the bank, according to his latest campaign finance report. Hayworth said last week his campaign is approaching $100,000 in contributions.

A former television sportscaster, Hayworth was among a wave of Republicans elected to the U.S. House in 1994. He spent the next 12 years representing his district covering part of the eastern suburbs of Phoenix and, for a time, American Indian reservations.

Democrat Harry Mitchell defeated Hayworth in 2006.

Hayworth ran a conservative campaign emphasizing his opposition to illegal immigration, but he was dogged by a reputation for being an angry and bombastic partisan.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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