Kirkpatrick, McCain spar over Clinton, Trump

Incumbent John McCain and challenger Ann Kirkpatrick face off Monday at a televised debate.

Photo by Howard Fischer.

Incumbent John McCain and challenger Ann Kirkpatrick face off Monday at a televised debate.

PHOENIX – Incumbent John McCain found himself on the defensive Monday over the fact it took months for him to conclude that Donald Trump is not fit to be president.

During a televised debate, McCain made his case for voters to give him another six years in the U.S. Senate, where he has served since 1986. That followed four years in the House of Representatives.

Kirkpatrick, the Democrat nominee, is trying to use McCain’s tenure to argue that the 80-year-old senator has been in Washington too long and is out of touch with constituents. McCain also has been buffeted by charges that his positions appear to morph over time.

But during the hour-long debate, the senator insisted that he is the same person that Arizonans sent to Washington.

“I will continue to be known as the ‘maverick,’ ‘’ he said, a name he was given -- and embraced -- in earlier campaigns. And the senator insisted that the label still applies.

“I will continue to fight with my own Republican Party when necessary,’’ McCain said.

“There was a time when John McCain was a maverick,’’ Kirkpatrick countered. “Now he has taken more money from Wall Street than any other sitting senator.’’

Kirkpatrick said that, regardless of McCain’s reputation, it’s time for him to retire. She proposed term limits of three two-year terms in the House and then two six-year terms in the Senate.

McCain sniffed at that suggestion.

“The voters determine term limits,’’ he said.

McCain, for his part, sought to paint Kirkpatrick with the controversy over the deaths of four U.S. diplomats at Benghazi when the embassy there was attacked in 2012. That incident has been an issue nationally

McCain acknowledged that Kirkpatrick had no role in either the attack or the apparent failure to send troops to defend the facility.

“I don’t associate her with Benghazi,’’ he said. “I associate her with Hillary Clinton.’’

McCain repeated charges by Republicans that Clinton was responsible for failing to respond to requests for help.

“There has been a cover-up the likes of which I have not seen,’’ the senator said.

Most polls have shown McCain, with an edge over the three-term member of the House of Representatives. That reflects, at least part, the edge Republicans have in voter registration.

But McCain found himself under stiff questioning Monday, not just by Kirkpatrick but also the hosts of the debate, about his backing of Trump. That support continued through personal insults like being told he’s a loser for getting captured during the Vietnam war, through Trump insulting the parents of a Muslim soldier who died in Iraq, through Trump saying a judge of Mexican heritage had no right to hear a lawsuit against him over Trump University, and through Trump calling him a “loser’’ for being defeated by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race.

It took the revelation Friday of some 11-year-old comments Trump made boasting of assaulting women and grabbing them for the senator on Saturday to finally distance himself from the GOP presidential nominee. McCain said Monday he would write in the name of some conservative candidate, possibly Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

But the senator sidestepped questions of whether he would be comfortable with Trump’s “finger on the nuclear button.’’

“I do not see a scenario where he would have his finger on the button,’’ McCain said. But he conceded that he had, in fact, previously backed Trump to be president, a position that would allow him to launch a nuclear attack.

“I was supporting the nominee of the party,’’ McCain said in explaining why it took so long to dump Trump.

McCain all but predicted that Trump will lose in November. He said that it’s important for Republicans to maintain control of the Senate if Clinton is elected, particularly to block her appointments, including to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Related to that issue is the decision by federal courts to block the executive orders of President Obama to allow some people who arrived here illegally to remain. McCain said the lower court judges got it right.

“Barack Obama violated his oath of office,’’ the senator said.

Kirkpatrick said that the legal issues would finally be resolved by the nation’s highest court if the Republican-controlled Senate would finally have hearings on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. McCain, who voted to confirm for Garland for a federal appellate court post, defended holding off until the Senate sees who is elected to the White House.

McCain, for his part, has focused on Kirkpatrick’s support for the Affordable Care Act, more colloquially known as ObamaCare, even as the program is faced with fewer options for those eligible and sharply rising premiums.

Kirkpatrick acknowledged the problems with the plan but said it can be fixed. And if nothing else, she said the Affordable Care Act has meant that people cannot be denied coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions.

“It is based on a flawed premise,’’ McCain responded, saying it has to be scrapped and Congress needs to start over.

Kirkpatrick is not being helped in her campaign by the fact that Arizona has been particularly hard hit by problems with the Affordable Care Act.

At one point earlier this year it appeared that Pinal County, in the heart of her congressional district, would become the only county in the entire country to have no providers at all.

That has since been remedied with a decision by Blue Cross to write policies, though the costs have yet to be unveiled. But 14 of the state’s 15 counties will still have only one ObamaCare provider.

Kirkpatrick is suffering under the double-whammy of relatively low name recognition and the inability to raise as much as McCain.

Her time in the U.S. House – 2009 to 2010 and again 2013 until now was in representing the sprawling Congressional District 1 which stretches from the northern suburbs of Tucson through central, eastern and northern Arizona. But that district is not where the population lies.

That’s why she needs money.

The most recent campaign finance reports, however, show that McCain has raised $12.4 million this election cycle and still has more than $5 million on hand. Kirkpatrick, by contrast, listed total contributions of nearly $5.9 million but with less than $2.3 million in the bank.