Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is surrounded by staff and supporters on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, at his Phoenix, Ariz., home. From left are: adviser Mark McKinnon, campaign CEO Rick Davis, sitting, McCain, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-CT., and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
By Adam Nagourney
New York Times
updated 5:58 p.m. ET, Sat., May. 24, 2008
WASHINGTON - Senator John McCain's presidential campaign is in a troubled stretch, hindered by resignations of staff members, a lagging effort to build a national campaign organization and questions over whether he has taken full advantage of Democratic turmoil to present a case for his candidacy, Republicans say.
In interviews, some party leaders said they were worried about signs of disorder in his campaign, and if the focus in the last several weeks on the prominent role of lobbyists in Mr. McCain's inner circle might undercut the heart of his general election message: that he is a reformer taking on special interests in Washington.
"The core image of John McCain is as a reformer in Washington - and the more dominant the story is about the lobbying teams around him, the more you put that into question," said Terry Nelson, who was Mr. McCain's campaign manager until he was forced out last year. "If the Obama campaign can truly change him from being seen as a reformer to just being another Washington politician, it could be very damaging over the course of the campaign."
The ousters of some of the staff members came after Mr. McCain imposed a new policy that active lobbyists would not be allowed to hold paying jobs in the campaign.
Some state party leaders said they were apprehensive about the unusual organization Mr. McCain had set up: the campaign has been broken into 10 semi-autonomous regions, with each having power over things like television advertising and the candidate's schedule, decisions normally left to headquarters.
More than that, they said, Mr. McCain organizationally still seems far behind where President Bush was in 2004. Several Republican Party leaders said they were worried the campaign was losing an opportunity as they waited for approval to open offices and set up telephone banks.
"They finally assigned someone to West Virginia three weeks ago," said Doug McKinney, the state Republican chairman there. "I had a couple of contacts with him and I e-mailed him twice and I never heard back. I finally called and they said that the guy had resigned."
Mr. McCain's campaign has transmitted conflicting messages in recent days about how he would present himself, as he has tried to reassure conservatives nervous about his ideological consistency even as he has tried to expand his appeal to moderates and liberals.
He recently spent three days talking about global warming, a subject he used to emphasize his differences with Mr. Bush. But he ended that week with a high-profile speech to the National Rifle Association, a group suspicious of his views on gun control.
Mr. McCain's advisers, some of whom gathered with the candidate for the holiday weekend at his Arizona ranch along with three Republicans assumed to be under consideration as his running mate - said the concern within the party reflected, in part, exaggerated concern about Senator Barack Obama's strengths as a general election candidate. Mr. McCain, they said, was in a strong position entering into this next phase of the race.
Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser, said Mr. McCain had used the time since effectively winning the nomination to methodically raise his standing by traveling the country, delivering speeches on issues including national security and the environment, and raising money, to make sure he could at least hold his own with Mr. Obama going through the summer.
Although Mr. Obama has continued to raise far more money than Mr. McCain, Mr. Bush's fund-raising machinery has helped keep the Republican Party competitive. The McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee, between them, have $11 million more on hand - about $62 million - than the combined cash-on-hand of Mr. Obama and the Democratic National Committee.
"How do you measure success over the course of the spring campaign?" Mr. Schmidt said. "This is how: The reality of this race is the Republican Party brand is very, very badly damaged, in some places broken. We've lost Congressional seats in districts that have elected only Republican for a generation. And Senator McCain is running even or ahead of Senator Obama in most national polls."
Mr. McCain has taken steps to inject new thinking into his campaign. He recently expanded his extremely tight circle of advisers by bringing on Nicolle Wallace, who was communications director for Mr. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, which many Republicans view as the model for political management.
Last Sunday, he invited Mike Murphy, his longtime friend and political adviser, who is not involved in this campaign, to his home in Virginia. There, Mr. Murphy reportedly gave him a detailed and at times tough assessment of what Mr. McCain had done wrong.
Mr. Murphy urged him to tone down his attacks on Mr. Obama and stop coming across as so angry. He recommended that Mr. McCain concentrate on running as a reform candidate to strip that issue from Mr. Obama, and to make greater efforts to distance himself from Mr. Bush, according to Republicans familiar with the conversation.
Some of Mr. McCain's associates said that Mr. McCain might be interested in bringing Mr. Murphy back on board, but that his current circle of advisers was resisting that.
As soon as Mr. Obama secures the Democratic nomination, Mr. Schmidt said, Mr. McCain will begin a series of speeches intended to contrast their positions. Mr. McCain's advisers said they did not think it made sense to do that until Mr. Obama wrapped up his battle against Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, given how the two Democrats are dominating the news.
"The race changes the moment she drops out and he emerges as the official nominee," said Charlie Black, a senior McCain adviser. "Then the focus becomes on a two-person race and that leads to us getting more equal treatment in terms of getting airtime. We've had to fight with one hand tied behind our back."
Republicans said Mr. McCain certainly had time to get his campaign back on track, and they remained confident that he would be a strong general election candidate against Mr. Obama. Some said the level of concern was overstated, or reflected the general Republican apprehension about this electoral environment, rather than anything Mr. McCain had done wrong.
"I think any Republican who doesn't say panic is in the wind is lying through their shirt," said Ron Kaufman, a former senior adviser who worked for Mitt Romney. "The question is, is that panic caused by McCain's campaign - or lack thereof in some respects - or is it the climate."
The string of departures from the campaign was prompted by questions about lobbying activities by aides and advisers to Mr. McCain and a new policy, dictated by Mr. McCain, that active lobbyists not be allowed to hold paying jobs in the campaign. Mr. Schmidt said that policy was an example of how Mr. McCain would take tough action, part of a contrast he said they would draw with Mr. Obama for "giving great speeches" but having no record of accomplishment.
But Mr. McCain's associates said the campaign had failed to anticipate the extent to which the news media would use the policy to examine Mr. McCain's staff. The result was a run of damaging stories and resignations that highlighted not the policy itself but the backgrounds of top campaign officials, including Rick Davis, the campaign manager, and Mr. Black, both of whom have long lobbying backgrounds.
Some Republicans said they were concerned that the Democrats would soon unify around Mr. Obama, and that it was only a matter of weeks before Mr. Obama began unloading a huge round of advertising intended to define Mr. McCain. If that happens, they said, Mr. McCain may look back at this period as a time of missed opportunity.
Discussing what Mr. McCain needed to do, Mr. Nelson, another veteran of the Bush 2004 team, said: "Step No. 1 would be finding a compelling message that excited Republicans, and Step No. 2 would be having the ability to turn your voters out. From what I see, in both respects, they have a long way to go, but they have time."
Mr. McCain has made some gains in reassuring conservatives nervous about his views on issues like immigration, polls suggest. But if he is going to rely on turnout within the Republican base more than on winning over independents and disaffected Democrats, there is evidence that he has not gone as far as needs to - particularly given how energized Democrats appear to be.
"He is going to need extraordinary participation of Republicans if Democrats continue to flock to the polls the way they have," said Kris Kobach, the Republican Party leader from Kansas. "It's critical that he use this period to generate enthusiasm from his base."
Mr. McKinney, the Republican chairman in West Virginia, said Mr. McCain's identification with immigration legislation that would eventually permit some illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship continued to be highly problematic for him.
"But it doesn't matter what we think - Senator McCain goes his own way," Mr. McKinney said. "Always has and always will."
Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting.