THE GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — As the drama and controversy that defined the Republican Party’s coronation week for Donald Trump unfolded, Sen. John McCain could not have been farther away.
“You’re not in Cleveland? I’m surprised,” Jose Campos, a tourist visiting from New Mexico, asked McCain, the 2008 GOP standard-bearer, inside a visitor’s center overlooking the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
“I’m happy,” replied McCain, who has spent the week of the Republican National Convention holding a series of largely small events, darting back-and-forth between campaign and official business, and clearly enjoying himself along the way.
By even mentioning the events in Cleveland or anything about Trump. Campos was in the minority. When people did ask, McCain said he found it more important to be home campaigning. Many of the events, though, were decidedly low-key.
But that pace belies the fight McCain faces, both within the national party that has embraced Trump and in a surprisingly competitive race for the Senate seat he has held for three decades.
One solace: Over the course of about eight hours Wednesday that included more than two hours on a train to Grand Canyon National Park, Trump’s name only came up a handful of times — like when McCain was reading the newspaper or when someone made an offhand comment.
Traveling in an ornate parlor car aboard the Grand Canyon Railway, the McCain and his wife Cindy were regaled by a customary collection of entertainers, from a fiddler to a man playing the role of a United States marshal.
The senator did not work the train as a politician might normally do, but an informal survey of the crowd in a different car on a train returning south later in the day suggested that the crowd was not from Arizona anyway.
A Monumental Problem
McCain’s sixth campaign for the Senate could prove his most difficult. He has reluctantly endorsed Trump even though he disagrees with many of the stances the business mogul has taken. That includes the GOP nominee’s belligerent language toward Mexican immigrants — a powerful voting bloc in Arizona.
McCain faces an aggressive challenge from Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who is not only linking McCain to Trump but also questioning how long the senator has served .
Public polling has been scarce in the Arizona Senate race, with the generally liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling survey showing McCain and Kirkpatrick inside the margin of error, while a Rocky Mountain Poll from last month shows McCain ahead by nine points, but still well south of 50 percent, dangerous territory for a long-term incumbent.
The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll rates the race as Lean Republican. But the race could become more competitive, particularly if Trump inspires Latinos to register as Democrats and vote in record numbers.
A day earlier, he told a local chamber of commerce gathering, “The people of Arizona know me. And they know me well. And so I think they’re going to judge me not so much on who the head of the ticket is or who isn’t, or who the Democrat is.”
At the Grand Canyon, a woman at the gift shop questioned McCain about why he wasn’t in Cleveland.
“I mean we voted for you ― I don’t know why you aren’t at the convention,” the woman said, to which McCain responded that he was better off campaigning at home. The woman later quipped that she didn’t believe McCain’s explanation, according to a video by an apparent campaign tracker.
McCain’s official business at the Grand Canyon was a round table on the canyon rim with a group of local officials and business representatives concerned about the possibility that President Barack Obama could use his power under the Antiquities Act to designate a new national monument for the canyon watershed.
The senator said he interpreted a decades-old agreement with late Rep. Morris K. Udall, D-Ariz., that lands were to be available for multiple uses, something that might not be possible with a monument.
“Now they’re going back on that commitment, and I think it’s disgraceful,” McCain said.
“I’m worried that as this administration winds down that they will be moving toward the designation of monument status,” McCain said. “I want to promise you I am as committed as anybody in this room to preserving the beauty of our state, but this part of the state should be used for multiple use, for all the reasons that it has since people first came here.”
McCain mentioned he didn’t know where Trump stood specifically on lands issues, but said a GOP administration would likely be more sympathetic to the community’s concerns.
The senator’s meetings, many of which drew scant press coverage, were interspersed with lighter activities where the incumbent seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself, a far cry from the angry persona that sometimes grabs headlines.
McCain joked about that during a rare ranger-led tour of the Kolb Studio, a historic home on the canyon rim where brothers Emery and Ellsworth Kolb, in the business of photographing visitors, worked and lived.
“Not everybody liked Emery. I’ve heard him described as difficult. I’ve heard him described as a mean old man,” Ranger Ron Brown said while leading the small tour group through the kitchen of the House.”
“I’ve been described the same way,” McCain said.
Williams, the southern terminus of the Grand Canyon train, is a city of roughly 3,000 residents, plus many more tourists who pass through a historic downtown on what was the final stretch of Route 66 to be bypassed by the interstate.
It’s the kind of place small enough that McCain campaign interns from around the state, who had taken a chartered bus to distribute literature on Tuesday, ran into the city’s mayor driving his pickup truck.
They also encountered a woman in medical scrubs who dismissed McCain, saying “He’s an idiot. A pure idiot,” then turned and walked away.
A cowboy at a local laundromat declined a request to be interviewed.
It’s a worthy reminder that walking along the main road through town (which is of course the old Route 66) during GOP convention prime time, there wasn’t a bar to be seen actually airing the speeches from back in Cleveland, or the cable news punditry about them.
Speaking at a breakfast in Williams, a local pastor told McCain that his congregation was praying for elected officials, even if they do not always agree about policy. He said he was leaning toward voting for Trump.
McCain, sounded dubious that either Trump or presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would be able to govern with a broad mandate.
“For the first time in political history, since they’ve been taking polling, the two major candidates have larger unfavorable opinions held by the American people,” McCain said. “If the American people don’t trust you, then how do you unite the country?”