Convention delegates show lukewarm support for McCain re-election

Sen. John McCain at an Iconic Voices event held at the Cronkite School in 2016. (Photo by Cronkite News)

CLEVELAND – When Arizona delegates to the Republican National Convention were asked Thursday how many would not vote for Sen. John McCain in next month’s primary, more than half of their hands went up.

The question stunned veteran pollster Frank Luntz, who had asked it as part of a presentation on the last day of the convention on the challenges facing the party – one of which was party unity.

“Oh my God,” Luntz said. “Where’s the chairman? You should’ve told me this before.”

Luntz pressed the issue, getting silence when he asked the crowd if it would support Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, over McCain. The delegates said they would support McCain if he was elected as the state’s Republican nominee next month.

“I can’t believe this, what the hell,” Luntz said.

McCain faces several primary challengers in his bid for a sixth term, the leader being former state Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, who had 26 percent of the vote to McCain’s 39 percent in a May poll by Public Policy Polling.

When Luntz asked who in the delegation room wanted to see McCain re-elected, he was met with silence, a few shaking heads and a few murmurs against the incumbent. When he then asked who would not vote for McCain, more than half the delegates raised their hands, with one calling out that the five-term senator was “too old” and another saying, “There’s a reason he’s not here.”

A McCain campaign official said Thursday that the reaction of “a small group of people in Cleveland” will not change the outcome of the primary race, which the McCain camp is confident of winning.

But Ward seized on the response as evidence that voters are “ready for new blood, ready for change” from the five-term senator.

Ward, who was in Cleveland earlier this week for the convention, said she wasn’t totally surprised by the delegation’s reaction, saying she had received words of support from delegates earlier in the week.

“John McCain’s been there for almost 40 years,” Ward said Thursday. She said McCain is a “maverick” who moves to the left, bringing some Republican votes with him.

“He gives cover to Republicans to vote the wrong way,” Ward said.

But Lorna Romero, the McCain campaign’s communications director, said the delegates’ response to Luntz was not concerning, as the senator has been running a “strong and successful” campaign.

“The response has been overwhelming so the reaction of a small group of people in Cleveland is not reflective of voter sentiment in Arizona,” Romero said.

McCain skipped this year’s convention, opting to focus on his campaign in Arizona. He has been in northern Arizona this week, spending Thursday and Friday in Mohave County.

“We’re taking this campaign very seriously, but at the same time we’re confident the senator will be victorious on Aug. 30,” Romero said.