"My big concern is that you've got some other people looking at the race that could actually be contenders," Gould said. "If we create a three-way situation trying to beat John McCain, that just means both the challengers will end up losing."
In Arizona, however, some of Salmon's potential supporters appear ready to back Ward.
(RELATED: John McCain Tops Conservatives' 2016 Primary Hit List)
Francine Romesburg, facilitator for the Glendale Grass Roots Tea Party Activists, said her group liked both Ward and Salmon and would support either candidate, but they'd heard Salmon wasn't interested in the race. "We need someone who's going to get in there," Romesburg said. "We need one good, strong candidate to run ... and a good majority of us believe that that's Kelli Ward. We had her speak last year, and she's just a real fireball."
To the national strategists, there is no substitute for Salmon when it comes to their most important race of the cycle. Getting a member of the congressional delegation to run is crucial for securing the backing of moneyed groups like the Club for Growth, which has supported Salmon in the past and is watching McCain's race. Among the House members, Salmon is viewed as most likely to throw his name in, having already sought higher office in the 2002 governor's race. The second most likely, Rep. David Schweikert, has all but ruled out running, vowing instead to help Salmon should he get in.
"To beat an incumbent, you obviously need to get everyone unified early," said Adam Brandon of FreedomWorks, a D.C.-based conservative lobbying group. "We would only get into a race if there was a very viable candidate. ... Salmon has been extremely impressive, a 100-percent rating in the House, so that's the sort of person you'd want to see step up."
McCain's office downplayed the likelihood of a challenge from within the delegation. After all, the senator has seen this movie before: In 2010, fresh off a 2008 presidential loss in which he won his home state's primary nomination with less than half the vote, McCain faced a challenge from talk-radio host and former congressman J.D. Hayworth. Though much of the tea-party support coalesced around Hayworth, a second challenger from the Right, Jim Deakin, peeled off nearly 12 percent of the primary vote. McCain took a series of conservative positions he hadn't in the past, appeasing some of his critics, and won his primary by 24 points.
The senator "is strongly leaning toward running for reelection," and is "taking all the necessary steps to be ready," spokesman Brian Rogers said in a statement. "Anyone contemplating a primary challenge would be well-advised to consider what happened in 2010."