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The real John McCain has been kidnapped and an impostor is running against J.D. Hayworth in the Arizona U.S. Senate primary.

It does sound far-fetched, but stranger things have happened in American politics. It’s actually quite clever when you think about it.

John McCain realized quite early that he could not win re-election to the Senate if he campaigned on his actual record – that is, if he campaigned as who he is. So, he arranged to be kidnapped and secluded in a five-star resort in Fiji while a well-groomed look-alike, McCain 2.0, campaigns in his place.

McCain 2.0 is campaigning as a strong, unapologetic Reagan conservative. He is now opposed to illegal immigration and wants 3,000 National Guard troops sent to the Mexican border. The real John McCain would gag on that speech, so he has to be 10,000 miles away. He reportedly spends his days on Fiji divided between watching old James Cagney movies and writing his next book, “With Apologies Galore.”

The mainstream media are not blind; they realize this is not the real John McCain. But they are playing along with the charade. It’s the least they can do to help their favorite “maverick” deal with his “lunatic right-wing base.”

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the scripted victory dance. Despite a fawning press and a huge money advantage, the most recent Rasmussen Poll shows former Rep. J.D. Hayworth is now only 5 points behind McCain 2.0. Conservative activists in Arizona are not following the script.

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I confess, I have my doubts that the impostor McCain 2.0 can keep the real McCain hidden for 14 more weeks. McCain 2.0 has called for 3,000 National Guard troops to be sent to the border and 700 miles of border fencing – and has endorsed the new Arizona law giving vast new powers to local police agencies to arrest illegal aliens. This is truly an act worthy of an Academy Award for best performance in political theater.

But 2010 is no ordinary election year. The natives are restless, and conservatives in Arizona are asking hard questions and demanding McCain debate Hayworth face-to-face. Can the McCain impostor stay on message and win over skeptical conservatives in debates and town-hall meetings?

McCain 2.0 has deployed formidable allies imported from Washington, D.C. His insider friends have arranged for endorsements that any Republican would be proud of. You need Sarah Palin to campaign for you? No problem. After all, she owes you big-time, and illegal immigration is not a big deal in Alaska.

Undoubtedly, the toughest obstacle for the McCain 2.0 strategy is the tea-party movement, which is very strong in Arizona. Will tea-party activists and 9-12 patriots play the game?

To deal with this potential threat, McCain 2.0 came up with a strategy that may be working. Friends in Washington who are influential in some of the national tea-party organizations persuaded the Arizona tea-party movement to remain neutral and not endorse any candidate in the Republican Senate primary. Thus, a legion of activist conservative voters who might have rallied to McCain’s opponent have been told by their Washington mentors to sit on the sidelines. The problem is the success of that strategy depends entirely on the credibility of McCain 2.0.

It is a strange marriage indeed when tea-party leaders fall in line with Washington insiders to support a man who more than any other Republican embodies all the compromises and sellouts that have weakened the Republican Party since the end of the Reagan presidency. John McCain has not only been on the wrong side of nearly every important domestic-policy battle over the past decade, he has often been the leader of those efforts. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” would have been DOA without “mavericks” like McCain.

McCain 2.0 has been programmed to say whatever it takes to get re-elected. This is nothing new in American politics; it is standard behavior for career politicians in both parties. But it is the exact opposite of what the activists in the tea party and 9-12 Project are demanding from public officials and candidates.

Will John McCain end 2010 as Sen. McCain or private citizen McCain? Arizona voters will decide that question. But what they cannot do is elect candidate McCain 2.0 to the United States Senate, because that McCain is a mirage.

True, this bait-and-switch game is as old as democracy, but participating in the charade makes cynics of freedom-loving patriots. If McCain can successfully disavow his record and reinvent himself as a champion of low taxes, 10th Amendment federalism and immigration-law enforcement, then it is fair to conclude that the tea-party and 9-12 movements are “all hat and no cattle.”

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