PHOENIX - Republican Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain on Friday took sides in Arizona's heated Republican primary for U.S. Senate, endorsing U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake while criticizing his opponent.
Flake faces businessman Wil Cardon in the Aug. 28 primary for the Republican nomination for the Senate seat now held by Kyl, a three-term senator who is retiring.
Democrat Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general, will face the winner of the GOP primary in the general election.
Kyl and McCain called Flake a principled reformer.
"I watched Jeff Flake take on the leaders of his own party in the heyday of pork barrel spending ... I watched him be punished for it by our own leadership," McCain said during a news conference.
"Nobody has a better reputation as a reformer in Washington than Jeff Flake, unless it might be my colleague John McCain," Kyl said.
McCain and Kyl said their endorsements also stemmed from Cardon's campaign tactics.
"(Cardon) tears Jeff Flake down, and he does it in numerous ways that are reckless, inaccurate, inappropriate," Kyl said.
The incumbent senators said Cardon crossed the line in an advertisement in which an altered photo made it falsely appear that Flake literally stood behind President Barack Obama. The ad criticized Flake on immigration, saying his position was the same as the Democratic president.
Cardon has taken a tough stance on immigration and border security issues. Flake, who previously supported a range of immigration changes, opened his Senate campaign in February 2011 by saying border security needed to be the focus.
Cardon dismissed the endorsements of Flake by Kyl and McCain as members of Washington's "old guard" sticking together.
"I'm not surprised they endorsed their friend Jeff Flake," said Cardon, who has been endorsed by Republican U.S. Rep. Trent Franks.
Cardon said using the manipulated imagery of Flake and Obama was fair.
"I have respect for the service of Jon Kyl and John McCain, but I totally disagree with their characterization. We're talking about the issues," Cardon said.
During the news conference, Flake and Kyl said it was proper for Flake to run an ad criticizing Cardon on an immigration-related issue. The Arizona Republic reported Sunday that federal authorities fined a business partly owned by Cardon because nearly half of the 315 workers at its sandwich shops were illegal immigrants.
"You can't have it both ways. Either you were directly involved in creating all these jobs and therefore have some responsibility for who got hired, or you weren't ... It's up to him to explain that," Kyl said.
McCain said he hadn't seen the Flake ad and could not comment on it.
Cardon said the fines were for "incomplete paperwork" that formed the basis for checking the legal status of workers before the federal government began its electronic verification system and before Arizona began requiring its use.
"My response is that people who haven't held a job in the private sector like Jeff Flake don't understand the private sector," said Cardon, who described himself as a 3-percent owner of the business.
The workers whose paperwork was rejected by federal authorities were confronted and either quit or were fired if they couldn't clear things up, Cardon said.