Top Aides Leave McCain Camp

Four senior officials left John McCain's campaign team, which has shrunk by about 70 members.
Four senior officials left John McCain's campaign team, which has shrunk by about 70 members. (By Lauren Victoria Burke -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

In the mid-1990s, years before Sen. John McCain officially launched his first bid to become president, it was John Weaver who convinced the senator that he had all the ingredients to win the GOP nomination and the Oval Office.

Weaver -- a lanky, fidgety Republican strategist with a deceptively low-key Southern drawl -- would go on to become one of McCain's closest advisers during the 2000 race, an architect of the "Straight Talk Express." Weaver was also, literally, the senator's right-hand man: On the road, he would join McCain, whose range of arm motion was limited by his wounds in Vietnam, in his hotel room to help him comb his hair.

On Tuesday, McCain parted ways with his longtime aide and engineered a dramatic shake-up of his presidential campaign team as he sought to reverse a months-long downward spiral that has left him short of cash and struggling for support.

The stunning developments unfolded quickly yesterday morning after Weaver and campaign manager Terry Nelson, a key member of President Bush's 2004 reelection team, issued terse statements announcing their departures from the McCain camp.

Their exits came after several tense meetings before and after a recent trip to Iraq in which McCain expressed dissatisfaction to his high command over what he regarded as mismanagement of operations and excessive spending in the face of weaker-than-projected fundraising.

McCain quickly installed Rick Davis, the campaign's chief executive, as the new manager and vowed to press forward despite months of disappointing news. Davis long had sparred with Nelson, Weaver and Mark Salter, one of McCain's closest confidants, over operations. Salter will continue in his role as an unpaid senior adviser.

On Tuesday, Davis put out a brief statement on the new structure. "This campaign has always been about John McCain and his vision for reducing federal spending, defending traditional values, and winning the war against Islamic extremists," Davis said. "Today we are moving forward with John's optimistic vision for our country's future." Weaver did not return a call seeking comment.

The upheaval came as McCain was heading for the Senate floor to restate his support for Bush's troop increase in Iraq and days before he will take his pro-"surge" message to New Hampshire voters.

McCain's new difficulties further stirred an already volatile Republican nomination battle. No candidate has managed to break from the pack, and many GOP activists are still looking for what they regard as a reliable conservative and strong standard-bearer for what is shaping up as a challenging general election. But among the leading candidates, no one faces more difficulties than McCain.

Six months ago, the Arizona senator and former Vietnam prisoner of war was regarded as the front-runner for his party's nomination. He was soon eclipsed in the polls by former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and now is challenged by former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee, still an unannounced candidate. In Iowa and New Hampshire, McCain has worked to build credible organizations but has been overtaken in the polls by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Two other senior officials -- political director Rob Jesmer and deputy campaign manager Reed Galen -- followed Nelson and Weaver out the door, as did several lower-level aides. A staff that once numbered about 120 is now down to about 50, and more departures among senior staff members are possible, according to Republicans with knowledge of the internal changes.

Davis immediately sought to calm a shaken campaign staff and also reached out to reassure donors and fundraisers. Campaign sources said they expected veteran GOP strategist Charlie Black and former senator Phil Gramm of Texas to play larger roles in campaign strategy.

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