“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.” ~ McCain’s former campaign manager-Terry Nelson
By ADAM NAGOURNEY
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.