Early in May, John Dougherty, the best investigative reporter I've ever known, made the eyebrow-raising announcement that he would run for the U.S. Senate in Arizona. To think that a writer stood any chance of knocking off John McCain was absurd, vainglorious ... and ... perfect, as a matter of poetic irony.

Back in 1989, when Dougherty was reporting for the Dayton Daily News in Ohio, he broke some of the first major stories on Charles Keating Jr. and the five U.S. senators said to have lobbied federal regulators on behalf of Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan, which spiraled into insolvency and cost the government billions. The senators became infamous as the Keating Five; one was U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

And it is McCain whom Dougherty would face in November if he wins the contested Democratic nomination in Arizona's Aug. 24 primary, and if McCain wins on the contested Republican side.

I decided to see a bit of Dougherty's campaign and wound up in June at Democratic headquarters in Lake Havasu City, where Dougherty talked to a small group. The heart of his pitch was about making Arizona a national leader in solar energy. He also advocated for tightened campaign finance regulations and comprehensive immigration reform.

During the question-and-answer period, it became clear that Dougherty is able to talk about serious issues in language that connects with regular folks. But these days the question is whether anyone can get reasonable ideas heard.

Since the mid-1990s, Arizona's politics have included a form of politics-as-public-theater that uses fear to scapegoat society's least powerful. This kind of politics was popularized by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose notorious jail and its inhumane conditions drew the interest of Amnesty International and the U.S. Justice Department.

Arpaio's political success encouraged other Republicans to follow suit, with Gov. Jan Brewer signing Senate Bill 1070, Arizona's overreaching new immigration law. Since passage, this "papers, please" law has been embellished by harsh rhetoric, such as Brewer's contention in a TV interview that "we cannot afford all this illegal immigration and everything that comes with it, everything from the crime and to the drugs and the kidnappings and the extortion and the beheadings and the fact that people can't feel safe in their community. It's wrong! It's wrong!"

What's wrong is Brewer's claim about beheadings. Media outlets and medical examiners in the state's border counties have been unable to find a single case of such decapitation. Late in July, a federal lawsuit stopped SB 1070 from going into effect, at least temporarily. But immigration will continue to dominate Arizona's politics, because blaming Hispanic immigrants for the state's problems has proven a winning GOP strategy.

Even in the band of committed Democrats who braved 108-degree heat to hear Dougherty speak in Havasu, there were unmistakable expressions of -- let's call it -- intolerant thought. Eventually, one man with a vaguely European accent asked outright, "So shouldn't they just leave the country?"

Dougherty explained that many of the Mexicans in Arizona had been encouraged to come by large businesses. Rather than mass deportations, he advocated strict enforcement of sanctions against employers who hired undocumented workers, along with a temporary visa system for the workers themselves. But the accented guy wouldn't let it alone.

In Europe, they just deported illegals; why couldn't we do it here? Finally, Dougherty asked where the guy was from. He said he was of Danish origin. With a grin, Dougherty asked, "So, can I see your papers?"

Laughter chased the immigration bogeyman away, but it didn't go far; it just hid under a bed, waiting for dark.

Dougherty's next stop was a political breakfast in Ajo, a tiny town 40 miles north of the border, at the center of the battle against illegal immigration and drug smuggling in Arizona. For 20 residents drinking coffee in the back room of a deli, Dougherty again explained his detailed plans for solar energy and immigration reform. But Ajo is too close to the border to speak about immigration abstractly. A guy in a white cap said the problem is everywhere; a middle-aged woman wondered why, with 400 agents in the Ajo sector, illegal immigration hasn't slowed. No one seemed happy.

So while Dougherty employs facts, that may not help him in this campaign, dominated as it is by Arizona's immigration monster. Still, first-time candidates are the ultimate entrepreneurs, happily risking all for the mere possibility of public service.

If, improbably, Dougherty wins the Democratic nomination, he might then go on to run a scrappy, David vs. Goliath campaign against John McCain, if he also wins, and immigration might be discussed as a national problem to be solved, rather than a political hobbyhorse to be ridden. There might even be a McCain-Dougherty debate during which no one gets beheaded.

John Mecklin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is editor in chief of Miller-McCune magazine, based in California.  John Dougherty is a contributor to HCN.