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.

Still, as Thompson seeks an initial infusion of $5 million from his 100 "first-day" supporters, he has begun to pluck away coveted bundlers from McCain and the other front-runners, attracting significant interest from Bush's Pioneers and Rangers -- donors who proved capable of tapping vast personal networks for hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions.

Of 630 supporters Bush named Pioneers for their ability to raise at least $100,000 or Rangers for collecting at least $200,000, fewer than a third had joined a campaign as of March 31.

Florida may be a prime example of a place brimming with untapped potential, said Bob Martinez, a former governor and a Bush Pioneer who remains uncommitted. Republican presidential candidates together have raised just over $3 million in Florida this year. Bush raised $17 million there in 2004.

"Those who may have coalesced under the various Bush campaigns in the past are now shopping on their own," Martinez said. "It's a wide-open field."

Delaying his entry into the race has cost Thompson in some areas, even on his home turf of Tennessee. FedEx Chairman Frederick W. Smith, for instance, signed on to be a national fundraising chairman for McCain. Nashville developer Ted Welch got behind Romney in January, as did the retired chairman of Southlife Holding, Fred Lazenby; both were prolific fundraisers for Bush. "I wish him well," Lazenby said, "but I've already made my commitment."

Thompson has had success luring some supporters away. Florida lobbyist Curt Kiser had signed up with Giuliani, but said he could not resist an appeal from Thompson, whom he met while the two campaigned for Howard Baker during his ill-fated 1988 presidential bid.

"I really didn't think Fred was going to do it, but then, little by little, it started to look like he was going to do this," Kiser said. "I thought, 'Uh oh, I better find a way to get out of the Rudy campaign.' "

Thompson is already aggressively courting other major Bush donors. James A. Haslam III, a Knoxville businessman and longtime fundraiser who was twice a Bush Pioneer, said he started hearing from Thompson in late April about a potential bid. Haslam got the final word from him in a phone call two weeks ago.

"I think there are a number of people like me who were uncommitted, who saw an opportunity," Haslam said.

Fred Decosimo, a Pioneer who heads a Chattanooga accounting firm, joined Thompson's team last week, as did Beth Halteman Harwell, a former state GOP chairman.

Outreach to key fundraisers in other states has just begun. Thompson has recruited Dorinda Moss, a professional fundraiser. Her résumé includes work as the Midwest regional chairman for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004 and, more recently, a term as director of the Republican National Committee's "Regents Program," which courted donors who have contributed at least $25,000 a year.

Dowd and his wife had donated more than $50,000 to McCain and his Straight Talk political committee over the past decade, and had raised at least $7,000 for the senator's 2008 bid. But, now, he is making calls on behalf of Thompson and having success, he said.

"I haven't had anyone say no," he said. "I think I'll be way over my target."

A McCain spokesman said Dowd informed the campaign of his displeasure with the senator's stance on torture "some months ago."

"We wished him well," spokesman Brian Jones said.

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