McCain Campaign Hires 'Best Bricklayer'

By Chris Cillizza and Zachary A. Goldfarb
Sunday, March 19, 2006

In the behind-the-scenes hunt for 2008 campaign talent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has bagged a big one.

Terry Nelson, who served as national political director for President Bush's reelection race in 2004, has signed on as a senior adviser to McCain's Straight Talk America political action committee.

"Senator McCain has demonstrated a real commitment to helping our candidates up and down the ballot and I am excited to be a part of his effort," Nelson says in a statement the PAC plans to release Monday.

Nelson's formal role for Straight Talk will be to maximize the organization's influence and effectiveness in the 2006 midterm elections, but his hiring also makes a major mark on the 2008 landscape.

McCain and his chief political strategist, John Weaver, have spent much of the past year courting key members of the Bush campaign team. Until now, the majority of that recruiting has focused on the men and women -- designated Pioneers, Rangers and Super Rangers -- who each helped collect hundreds of thousands of dollars for Bush in 2000 and again in 2004. (In that vein, Straight Talk America recently received $5,000 checks from former Texas governor Bill Clements, a Republican, and lobbyist extraordinaire Ed Rogers -- a close ally of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who recently removed himself from the 2008 field.) But the hiring of Nelson shows that McCain and Weaver are not neglecting the staff side of the presidential process.

Nelson, a native of Marshalltown, Iowa, managed Iowa Republican Rep. Jim Nussle's 1994 race and went on to serve as majority staff director of the Iowa state Senate caucus. Nelson served as political director of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2000 and as deputy chief of staff at the Republican National Committee two years later. He is a partner in Dawson McCarthy Nelson, a GOP media firm, and the Crosslinks Strategy Group.

Of Nelson, McCain said: "Straight Talk is fortunate to have the strategic guidance of one of the country's most seasoned professionals."

A McCain adviser described Nelson as the "best bricklayer in the business" for his ability to build and implement a massive grass-roots political organization.

The splintering of the Bush campaign inner circle began earlier this year when Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, signed on as treasurer of Good Government for America, the political action committee of Sen. George Allen (R-Va.).

Withdrawals Don't Pay Off

When Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) announced last week that she would donate $10 million of her own money to her Senate campaign, boosters said it would jump-start a flagging candidacy and put her on the path to victory this fall.

History suggests this might be a tad optimistic.

In recent years, candidates who have tapped their personal bank accounts have tended to drop out of races or lose outright. In fact, in 2002 and 2004, only two of the 45 candidates for the House and Senate who spent more than $1 million of their own money on a race won, according to campaign finance records.

"The people running for governor or senator or president have been among society's winners," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "To get to that point, they always believe they can beat the odds because they've done that before."

There have been exceptions to the rich-losers trend. New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D), running for an open Senate seat in 2000, spent more than $60 million of his own funds to win. In 2002, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) won after spending $1.5 million on an abbreviated campaign while Rep. Michael T. McCaul (R-Tex.) racked up a landslide victory in 2004 after spending $1.9 million of his own dough -- the vast majority of which was disbursed in the primary election.

Only one person has spent $10 million or more since Corzine. Democrat Blair Hull dropped $29 million of his money on a 2004 Senate run in Illinois but lost badly in the primary after revelations concerning a messy divorce came to light.

What's certain is that Harris's candidacy needs the cash infusion. She trailed Sen. Bill Nelson (D) by $7 million in available cash at the end of 2005.

"Will resources alone ever win elections? No," said Brian Walter, National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman. "It has to go with a grass-roots organization and the ability to get your message out to voters. Which we believe she'll be able to do."

Burns May Have a Primary

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), dogged by controversy over ties to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, could face a primary challenge.

Montana Senate Minority Leader Bob Keenan, a Republican, told state newspapers he is worried about whether Burns can hold the seat this November and is considering challenging the three-term senator in the GOP primary in June.

In recent months Burns has been battered by the media and Democrats over his connections to Abramoff, and he has watched his lead shrink over his two potential Democratic opponents -- state Auditor John Morrison and state Sen. Jon Tester.

A Mason-Dixon poll conducted for Lee Newspapers late last year showed Burns under the 50 percent mark in head-to-head matchups against Morrison and Tester.

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