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updated 8/17/2010 10:49:25 AM ET 2010-08-17T14:49:25

It's dark, but still an oppressive 102 degrees, when Sen. John McCain agrees to talk to me in a parking lot next to his campaign SUV (flex-fuel and energy efficient, I'm assured). It's revved and running, no doubt for the air- conditioned comfort of those inside, but perhaps also for a quick getaway if needed.

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I have a feeling our time will be short, so I plunge quickly into questions about the upcoming Aug. 24 Republican Senate primary . "Why are you spending so much money?" I ask (nearly $20 million so far against former congressman J.D. Hayworth, who has been in the 30s or lower in polls for two months). "To win," McCain replies.

"Do you think it takes that much to win?" I ask.

"Well, I don't know. But I've always done whatever's necessary to win," he says.

There's a slight pause while I consider what he said, and he probably wonders why he said it. Then I ask him about Sen. Lindsey Graham's remark to The New York Times, that Graham understands his friend's moves away from risky past positions because "John's got a primary. He's got to focus on getting re-elected."

McCain interrupts me. "Lindsey knows that I don't change in my positions," he says. "I have not changed in my positions. I know how popular it is for the Eastern press to paint me as having changed positions. That's not true. I know they're going to continue to say it. It's fundamentally false. Not only am I sure that they'll say it, you'll say it. You'll write it. And I've just grown to accept that."

I think to myself that I've already written it — as long ago as 2006, as recently as last month. I think, it's the core of Hayworth's campaign (his tagline is "A Consistent Conservative"). McCain has rationales for all of his shifts — on climate change, immigration, taxes, gays in the military — but there's no question there have been shifts. I don't say any of that. Instead, I say the crowd of 700 at the barbecue was friendly and there seems to be "a different sense of you here" than in Washington.

McCain responds with a laugh that signals not mirth, but resignation. "How many . . . of your colleagues would love to see John McCain, the nominee of the Republican Party, in serious trouble?" he says. "They've told me that off the record."

Why would they do that? I ask in disbelief. He starts to offer examples of negative reporting about him and his 2008 campaign before cutting himself off. "Look, it's over, it's done with," he says.

Clearly it's not over and done, in his mind or in the minds of the "Eastern press" — at least those of us who covered his 2000 presidential campaign, that seat-of-the-pants maverick bid that came close to toppling the Bush dynasty. For us, there is no escaping his evolution over the years. For him, there's no escaping articles with headlines like "The Saddest Senator: Why John McCain has Become So Painful to Watch" and "What Would a Maverick Do?"

It had been four years since I interviewed McCain. At the time he was laying the groundwork for what became his successful 2008 nomination race — aligning himself with the Bush tax cuts he had opposed in his campaign and in the Senate, reinforcing his ties with the Bush family, reaching out to the religious right. A visit to Liberty University prompted Comedy Central's Jon Stewart to ask, in fun, "Are you going into crazy base world?"

"I'm afraid so," McCain answered, also in fun. He was still co-sponsor, with then Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, of a bill to cap carbon emissions. He was still working with President George W. Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy to give law-abiding illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

He had not yet won the 2008 nomination and, along with it, the responsibility to lead rather than challenge his party. He had not yet named vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who would unleash forces the John McCain of 1999 might have found a bit unsettling. The John McCain of today holds weekly conference calls with Tea Party activists and marvels at the GOP gains that he expects from "a revolution, a peaceful one, the likes of which I have never seen since I've been in public office."

Living in the Moment
McCain these days seems most comfortable in the moment, among those with little or no institutional memory: his spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan, who was just starting college in 1999 ("Don't you think situations in the world change in four years?" she asks, defending the position changes her boss has just said he didn't make); a young local reporter in Queen Creek (he asks about immigration and is treated to some banter and a picture with the candidate and his wife); some 160 employees at the Cold Stone Creamery headquarters in Phoenix, hearing him during his first visit to their workplace.

Though McCain's jokes at the creamery are at least a decade old, this audience is new. He gets hearty laughs when he mentions the guy at the Scottsdale Rotary who introduced him by saying, "Here's the latest dope from Washington," and the guy in the airport who says, "Anybody ever tell you that you look a lot like Sen. John McCain? Doesn't it make you just mad as heck?" Almost all the questioners make clear they are in tune with McCain's politics. One worries about tax increases she says the Democrats are planning. Another wants to know what McCain would do about "Obamacare." A young man notes that McCain's 74th birthday is approaching (on Aug. 29), and asks for words of wisdom. "Serve a cause greater than yourself and inspire others to do the same," McCain advises.

McCain brings up immigration himself, and he is at once alarmist and soothing. Arizonans should not have to live in fear of drug smugglers, human smugglers and violence, he says, and calls people who want to boycott the state over its tough new law "despicable." He further says that "we are a nation of immigrants, and we cherish our Hispanic heritage here in Arizona. Spanish was spoken in Arizona before English was. But we want everyone to come here legally."

In our carside interview in Queen Creek, I ask McCain what will satisfy him on immigration, what will convince him it's time to move on from border enforcement to dealing with the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country. It will be, he says, when the federal government spends the $4 billion it will take to put in place his and Sen. Jon Kyl's 10-point border plan and when local officials, including Gov. Jan Brewer, say the whole border is sealed as tight as Yuma. "The Yuma sector is quite secure," he says.

Several people at the cookout, including the chaplain at a nearby prison, tell me they appreciate McCain's recent focus on border enforcement. Yet several others say they hope and trust that once he's re-elected, he'll resume work on a broader solution to bring those here illegally out of the shadows. "For me, in his heart, he still wants to find a proper path to citizenship," says Betty Peterson of Eloy, a self-described "huge supporter" of McCain. "It won't be overnight. It'll be a process. They'll have to get in line. But I believe that there should be a path, some way to obtain a card if you're not a criminal. I hope that's where we're headed."

That gets to the core question for Hayworth and his supporters — what will McCain do if or when he is re-elected? Will he once again champion comprehensive immigration reform and that path to citizenship? Renew his push to limit carbon pollution by capping it and allowing companies to buy and sell permits? If military leaders say it's time to repeal their don't ask, don't tell policy toward gay soldiers, will he be supportive?

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Matters of Trust
Hayworth, who lost his House seat in 2006 and became a radio talk show host, delights in pointing out McCain's onetime support for cap-and-trade (which Hayworth calls "an ill-advised solution to a non-existent problem, because global warming is a hoax"); his votes against the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003; his push for "amnesty" for illegals (McCain says he never supported amnesty). He also tweaks McCain, famous for wanting to limit campaign spending, for spending so heavily against Hayworth -- including millions he transferred from his presidential coffers. "When all is said and done, $20 million will be spent to attack me in a primary. And the source will be the candidate who told us that all these contributions had a corrupting influence," Hayworth told a tittering audience in Phoenix last week.

Later, Hayworth and I are discussing McCain's move to the right and whether conservatives can rely on him to stay conservative, when a voter named Greg -- who refuses to give his last name -- stops by to urge Hayworth on. "The intensity's on your side," Greg tells him. "How can you trust a man like that? You know those two women who vote with the Democrats all the time? He's going to be right there with them (an apparent reference to Maine moderates Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins). And if we happen to get the Senate back, it's going to be razor thin and . . . he's going to be a vote for the other side."

Fortunately, I have saved the trust question for last in my six-minute encounter with McCain. What would you say, I ask, to Republicans who wonder if they can trust you? "We gotta go," Buchanan says, as McCain says, "Oh come on, come on, come on," and Buchanan continues with "Jill, come on, come on," and McCain is getting into the car.

"You're not answering?" I ask through the protests. "I'll answer," he says, turning toward me. "I'll say I'm proud of my record, I'm proud of my leadership, I'm proud of leading the fight against the stimulus package and Obamacare and the leadership role I played in the Senate and with Republicans. And they're very happy with me. Call Mitch McConnell or Jon Kyl or anybody else."

I thank him for answering the question, which addresses a central argument Hayworth is making against him. But Buchanan still has things to say, the gist being that integrity and honor are the most important things to John McCain, and how can I even ask him about trust?

McCain is, as most people know, a bona fide war hero who endured more than five years of imprisonment in Vietnam. It's been his defining identity for many years, a pillar of his brand as a politician above politics. It is why his tagline this year is "Character matters," why his TV ads attack Hayworth as corrupt, a huckster, an "avid earmarker" and -- horrors -- a lobbyist.

That may seem like overkill (slightly more bombastic and rude than the question I put to McCain!) but it is working. Unless Hayworth has caches of voters hiding from pollsters, McCain looks like a safe bet to win the nomination. At that point he'll no longer be competing with a global-warming denier who would station the military at the border, end birthright citizenship and put every proposed federal regulation to a Senate and House vote. If McCain is re-elected this fall, perhaps the 2008 election will truly be over and done for him, and he can figure out, unencumbered by the past, what kind of legacy he wants to build.

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