In an attempt to fend off the toughest challenge of his Senate career, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has unwittingly thrown his opponent fodder to use against him.

"I never considered myself a maverick," he told Newsweek's David Margolick in interview.

McCain's primary challenger, former Republican congressman and tea party favorite J.D. Hayworth, pounced on the quote, describing it as a disingenuous attempt to curry favor with conservatives, who have long distrusted McCain for breaking with the GOP on issues such as tax cuts and campaign finance.

"If memory serves, his campaign plane was called 'Maverick One,' and, as I understand it, in national campaigns they spend a lot of time on that stuff," Hayworth told Politico's Andy Barr.

"You’re seeing a lot of scrambling and a lot of position reversals and panicked and shrill attacks against me," he continued. "To the extent that he can encourage amnesia in the electorate, that’s what he’s aiming to do."

Indeed, the GOP's unpopularity in 2008 made it politically astute for McCain to distance himself from his party in the general election, during which he persistently painting himself as a "maverick" in campaign speeches, rallies and ads.

In one 30-second spot that fall, he characterized the McCain-Palin ticket as a team of "original mavericks" fighting for "real change," touting examples of the two rebuffing their party's conventional wisdom and criticizing its leaders.

"It’s a word that has been expunged from his vocabulary," remarked Hayworth, who has sought to characterize McCain as a moderate and himself as a conservative.

McCain has tacked rightward on a host of issues in the last year, such as climate change, gays in the military and his support for the 2008 bank bailout. He has also vigorously criticized President Obama -- sometimes with over-the-top rhetoric -- on policy initiatives.

And the re-branding seems to have paid off in the polls.

In recent months McCain has opened up a fairly comfortable, 15-point lead against Hayworth in a recent Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll. The figure is larger than the 7-point advantage he held last month in a Rasmussen survey, but the two were neck and neck last November.

The primary is scheduled for August 24, ahead of the November 2 general election.