As He Enters Race, McCain Appears to Be Off His Stride

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

MANCHESTER, N.H., April 24 -- John McCain formally launched his bid for the White House on Wednesday in the state that vaulted him to national prominence eight years ago, and if a candidate from either party needs a fresh start, it is the embattled senator from Arizona.

Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has surged past McCain in national polls testing the strength of the Republican field. McCain's fundraising in the first quarter was anemic and his candidacy has been defined almost exclusively by his public advocacy for President Bush's unpopular troop-increase policy in Iraq.

"It's a far more competitive race than it was six months ago, but I think people continually have a tendency to jump to premature conclusions about political campaigns," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster not working for any of the candidates. He added that McCain's "national stature is so great and the campaign's fundraising potential is so great that it would be a serious mistake to write him off prematurely."

Giuliani's rise has reshaped the GOP race in the first months of the year, but none of the major candidates has a strong grip on Republicans. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has struggled to rise above single digits in national polls. Recent stirrings by former senator Fred Thompson (Tenn.) have sparked enough interest that he is now competitive with Romney in national surveys.

Still, McCain has the most to prove at this point, and he may have limited time to demonstrate that he and his campaign are back on track. His advisers say their first priority is to raise $20 million or more by the end of June, to put to rest doubts about the senator's appeal to Republican donors.

The shakeup of McCain's fundraising operation began last month when former congressman Tom Loeffler (Tex.) was put in charge of the organization. It continued yesterday with Mary Kate Johnson replacing Carla Eudy as finance director.

Another goal is to broaden the definition of McCain's candidacy, which has been singularly focused on Iraq. "Because the war was going badly, that defined John more tightly than anyone wanted," said one official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about internal campaign issues.

McCain has sought to diversify his message with recent speeches on the economy, energy and global climate change. But Iraq remains the overriding issue hanging over his candidacy.

John Weaver, McCain's chief strategist, said the senator remains well positioned to compete for the nomination, noting that McCain is tied or leading in polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He also said McCain has better state organizations than his rivals have. "We wouldn't trade places with anybody," he said.

McCain will restart his campaign in New Hampshire, the state that made him a national power in the Republican Party with his victory over Bush in the 2000 primary. He will then go to South Carolina, where he was thrashed by the Bush forces, and to Iowa, which he skipped during his first campaign. After a stop in Nevada, he will end with a rally in his home state of Arizona.

"I think that without a doubt the American people, beginning [Wednesday], are going to see the most experienced candidate in either party and the only one who's willing to put principle above politics to get this country moving forward," Weaver said.

McCain's support for the war has made him far less popular among independents and Democrats, according to Washington Post-ABC News polls. Over the past 11 months, the percentage of Democrats who say they definitely will not vote for McCain has risen by 30 percentage points; among independents, it has jumped by 16 percentage points.

Among Republicans, however, the war has had only minimal impact on McCain's popularity. The percentage of Republicans who said they will definitely not vote for him in the general election rose from 20 percent in May 2006 to 25 percent in the most recent poll. But among Republicans, the percentage who said they definitely will vote for him has risen by 15 percentage points.

Strong antiwar sentiment fueled Democratic victories in New Hampshire in November. McCain could suffer if independents who supported him there in 2000 turn against him, or simply vote in the Democratic primary.

Still, Tom Rath, a New Hampshire Republican strategist and Romney adviser, thinks McCain is well positioned in the state. "He's got a great organization," Rath said. "The people who were with him remain with him. . . . If there's any place that's a firewall, it's New Hampshire."

McCain's problems in the party stem from other factors. He has sought to repair relations with parts of the conservative base, particularly religious conservatives, whose leaders he attacked during his 2000 campaign. He spent time last year courting such leaders as the Rev. Jerry Falwell, but much of the party's conservative base remains suspicious of him.

GOP strategists said that McCain's efforts were half-hearted, and that he sought rapprochement with Falwell but not with the Rev. Pat Robertson. They also said he made a tactical error in declining to speak at meetings of high-profile conservative groups over the past several months.

"I think this is kind of a fascinating case study in how not to reach out to the base, and I would argue they're not even trying anymore," said one strategist, who requested anonymity in order to assess McCain's campaign candidly.

In the most recent Post-ABC News poll, McCain trailed Giuliani among white evangelical Protestants, a remarkable finding given that Giuliani supports abortion rights and gay rights. Among self-identified socially conservative Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP, Giuliani and McCain were essentially tied.

McCain's advisers counter that among the major GOP candidates, he has the best record of opposing abortion, and that over time that will pay off. But he is at odds with many conservatives on immigration because of his support for a path to legal status for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

But they argue that it was never McCain's hope to become the darling of social and religious conservatives -- only to get enough votes among those Republicans to win the nomination. "McCain's goal wasn't to become their candidate," a campaign official said.

McCain's courtship of the Bush GOP establishment has caused strains as well.

"The primary challenge for Senator McCain is that all his life he has been a rebel, a maverick who has stuck his finger in the eye of the establishment," Ayres said. "Today he is running as the candidate of the establishment, and that suit doesn't fit particularly well."

Weaver argued that such criticism is a media creation.

"That's a suit that you guys are trying to impose upon him," he said. "He's exactly the same man I met in 1997 and felt compelled enough to join this effort. He's no different today. He calls them as he sees them."

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