Defections to Fred Thompson Pose a Major Threat to McCain

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

John Dowd represented Sen. John McCain in his darkest hour, the "Keating Five" scandal. He supported McCain the first time he ran for president in 2000 and signed up to be a major fundraiser for him in this year's presidential race. But when former senator Fred D. Thompson began thinking about running, the Washington lawyer changed his mind.

For McCain (Ariz.), who started off as the favorite to win the Republican nomination but now trails former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in most polls, Dowd's move signals yet another threat to his struggling campaign. As Thompson (Tenn.) builds his team of major fundraisers such as Dowd, the challenge for McCain will be to collect the millions of dollars necessary to maintain a nationwide campaign and convince Republicans that he is their best bet to retain the White House.

"I am very sorry to see what's happened to John," Dowd said in an interview. "I don't think his campaign is being well run. It's been over-managed. He blew through $8 1/2 million. It's a difficult thing to leave a friend and go to another friend. But we lost the John McCain I knew."

With the second-quarter deadline for reporting money raised only weeks away, Thompson's decision to become a candidate comes at a particularly bad time for McCain. After the initial fundraising results this year showed him behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Giuliani, McCain reorganized his fundraising staff and promised that the results would become apparent on June 30.

But now Thompson is aggressively pitching himself to conservatives uncomfortable with Giuliani, McCain and Romney, and hoping that he will be seen as a viable -- and fresh -- alternative to the current Republican field when he announces his candidacy early next month. He has already lined up the backing of a number of prominent Republicans, including George P. Bush, a nephew of President Bush.

Thompson's candidacy appears to present the most challenges for McCain. One of only three senators to endorse his candidacy when the lawmaker from Arizona sought the presidency in 2000, Thompson has been basking in media attention even as McCain has been the subject of attacks from the party base on the compromise immigration legislation he helped shape. Though the two shared remarkably similar voting records in the Senate, Thompson has assailed the immigration bill, which many Republicans dislike. He has also worked hard to convince social conservatives, who remain suspicious of McCain, that he is strongly against abortion.

"People have been waiting for a candidate who fits their profile," said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who was a Bush Pioneer in 2004 and recently signed on with Thompson.

McCain emerged contrite after the first-quarter fundraising results came out, and said he was dedicated to building a fundraising machine that would match Giuliani's and Romney's. He planned more large events, pledged to spend more time tracking the work of his team of bundlers, and put former congressman Tom Loeffler (R-Tex.) in command of the new operation.

McCain missed a slew of Senate votes this spring as he raced to solicit donors and attend fundraisers to close the gap with his rivals, and the furious pace is set to continue through the end of June. Between now and June 30, McCain is to visit 11 states and hold large donor events in Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Chicago, San Antonio and Richmond, aides said.

Loeffler said he sees no evidence that Thompson will cut into McCain's fundraising effort, and predicted that his candidate will "do better in the second quarter than he did in the first."

"We've restructured our organization," Loeffler said. "We have a very good leadership system. Very good tracking system. Excellent people."

"I don't believe there will be any impact at all," Loeffler said of Thompson.

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