By Michael D. Shear and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
As the Senate debate over immigration raged yesterday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had breakfast, brunch and lunch fundraisers in Houston before heading north to gather money at a supporter's home in Dallas and, later, from young professionals at a gourmet Mexican restaurant.
It's the new McCain: Working furiously to rebound from a lackluster fundraising effort in the first three months of the year, he is forgoing many opportunities for public campaigning and sharply cutting back his role as a high-profile legislator with a knack for brokering deals.
Today's schedule includes a breakfast fundraiser in Fort Worth and a meeting of his national finance team in Washington, followed by a gathering on the rooftop of a downtown law firm with more young professionals.
It all amounts to "an increased focus on fundraising and doing more events," said McCain spokesman Brian Jones. "I think you'll see more of that in June."
The emphasis on fundraising is critical for McCain, in particular, after he finished third among GOP front-runners in the first quarter, trailing both former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and ex-New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
The money-raising activity has proved to be something of a zero-sum game, however. On the campaign trail, the intense focus on fundraising has crowded out some of the retail campaigning that was a trademark of his first presidential campaign. The candidate who rode the Straight Talk Express for 71 days and 15,000 miles in 2000 has spent eight days on the bus so far in the 2008 campaign, aides said.
Since January, McCain has missed half of the Senate's scheduled votes -- 87 -- including all 45 votes held since first-quarter fundraising reports were released April 15 that showed McCain trailing all of the leading candidates in both parties. His absence from backroom negotiations over the immigration bill sparked a heated exchange last week with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who accused him of "parachuting in" at the last minute.
"[Expletive] you," McCain replied, according to several people who witnessed the exchange.
The spat with Cornyn again raised the specter of McCain's temper, for which the former sailor is infamous. In an interview during a recent campaign swing, McCain acknowledged the damage done to his previous campaign when he lashed out at his adversaries during the 2000 South Carolina primary.
"I was mad in South Carolina as you know. I was mad," he said in March. "In fact, it hurt me, because I got angry and it showed. And people don't like angry candidates. They really don't."
Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, whose group Americans for Tax Reform was targeted by McCain's committee during lobbying investigations last year, said the exchange with Cornyn reminded him of the McCain of old.
"You can have a temper and be angry. He has a history of personalizing disputes," Norquist said. "When he's mad at the NRA, he attacks Wayne LaPierre. . . . Every time we have an argument about policy, he gets personal."
But Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a leading centrist who has known McCain for 25 years, said that the Arizonan has a blunt-spoken nature that usually comes across as a positive trait. "With John you get the whole package, and it's someone who feels passionately about the issues," said Snowe, who has endorsed McCain.
She said that candidates can cross over from being straight talkers and into just plain angry, potentially torpedoing their campaigns. "You saw it with Howard Dean," she said of the Democratic National Committee chairman's 2004 bid. "It's one thing to be passionate about issues, to express those frustrations, and another to lose control."
Jones said that McCain remains engaged in the business of the Senate. "He's been there for the big votes and will continue to be there for the critical votes," Jones said.
McCain gave a speech in Oklahoma on Monday and held a conference call with conservative bloggers yesterday. Jones said that McCain's candidacy gives him an opportunity to grab even more attention for issues he cares about such as immigration.
"He's got a unique megaphone," Jones said. "He can talk about these issues . . . in a way that only a handful of other senators can."
McCain is not the only senator running for president to miss votes. Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), a Republican rival, and Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) have missed one-third of the votes this year. During the same period in 2003, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) missed 75 votes as he geared up for his presidential campaign.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has missed only four Senate votes so far this year.
But Republicans in the Senate, who are one vote shy of the majority, are keenly aware of McCain's frequent absence and his need to focus on fundraising.
Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), the Republican vote counter, is a strong supporter of McCain's presidential bid and speaks regularly with McCain. If a vote is so close that McCain might make the difference, Lott has the task of trying to order his friend off the campaign trail and back to the Senate for the vote. And McCain supporters said the senator has pledged to be there when he needs to be.
"Every candidate has this struggle to balance their time between political campaigning and fundraising. Those who have a regular job, too, have a three-way balance," said Charles Black, a longtime Republican strategist and a McCain backer.
Tomorrow, McCain has two fundraisers scheduled in Washington -- an 8:15 a.m. breakfast and a small reception at 8:15 p.m. Jones said the time between the two events has been reserved for Senate business.
That will be McCain's first trip back to the Senate since his cursing match with Cornyn. Shortly after that meeting, McCain joined nine other senators and two Cabinet secretaries to announce a bipartisan deal on immigration reform. He then quickly headed to Manhattan for a fundraiser and a speaking engagement -- missing another vote, this one on the $2.9 trillion annual spending blueprint for the federal government.
Washingtonpost.com database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.