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.
A week ago, McCain's campaign reported that he had just $2 million in cash in his campaign treasury after raising $24 million during the first six months of the year.
"Challenges are nothing new to me," McCain said in a message to supporters last night. Whether political challenges, physical challenges or even personal challenges, "how you stand up, face them and move forward defines your character and your strength." He added: "Now is not the time to be timid or to shy away from our challenges -- now is the time to stand up and say what we believe."
In a brief encounter with reporters in the Capitol, McCain sought to portray the extraordinary changes as nothing significant. Speaking of the departures of Weaver and Nelson, he said: "I can only say repeatedly what I have told you. They remain valued and strong friends, our campaign remains the same. We will always remain close friends. . . . They will continue with their advice and counsel."
But McCain's problems are far deeper than a staff shake-up. His support for Bush's troop-buildup policy has cost him the backing of many of the independents who once admired his maverick, straight-talking style. His support for comprehensive immigration legislation cost him vital support and contributions among the party's conservative base. His sponsorship of campaign finance reform long has rankled others in the party.
The campaign has also suffered from several enormous miscalculations, the most significant being the assumption that McCain could raise $100 million this year. That assumption fell by the wayside after his first-quarter fundraising hit just $13 million.
Campaign officials restructured their fundraising operation, and McCain ordered a clampdown on spending. But in the second quarter, McCain raised just $11 million while continuing to hemorrhage cash, ultimately producing a collision between the candidate and his closest advisers.
Over the past two weeks, according to multiple sources, McCain had several tense conversations with Nelson and Weaver over the campaign's direction and, in particular, the amount of money being spent long after it was clear that fundraising was falling far short of projections.
Weaver and Nelson held Davis partially responsible for misjudging the campaign's fundraising potential and for constructing a budget that was wildly optimistic.
A final meeting on Monday among McCain, Weaver and Nelson, which came shortly after McCain returned from a trip to Iraq, was described by several Republican sources as extremely acrimonious.
McCain had made clear he wanted Davis to return as campaign manager, a role Davis had played in McCain's 2000 campaign. Amid McCain's unhappiness, Weaver and Nelson left the campaign. In their statements, both said they continue to support McCain's bid for the White House and denied that they had been fired.
"I was not asked for my resignation by John McCain," Nelson said by e-mail.
But the split was much more than a run-of-the-mill campaign shake-up, ending a decade-long alliance between two figures who shared a passionate, sometimes emotional, approach to politics. Republican advisers said Weaver's departure was as unthinkable as Karl Rove leaving George W. Bush or James Carville being shooed out of the Bill Clinton campaign.
In New Hampshire in 2000, it was Weaver who put the game plan into action on the ground each day. He conducted a daily 6 a.m. campaign conference call and took attendance, with no exceptions: If any individual joined the call late, it would move up half an hour, to 5:30 a.m., the following day.
When McCain won the New Hampshire Republican primary in 2000, Weaver received much of the credit. When McCain went on to lose in South Carolina -- after what was widely painted as a negative whisper campaign directed by top Bush aides -- Weaver took it as a personal affront. During a campaign train swing later that year, in which McCain and Bush were supposedly reconciling, Weaver mischievously snatched up a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that been prepared for the Texas governor.
Later, disgusted by the Bush administration, Weaver signed congressional Democrats as clients. But almost as rapidly, and as convincingly, he orchestrated a rapprochement between McCain and his former nemesis, Bush. By the time the 2008 campaign got underway, Weaver had established himself as the premier strategist. In the meantime, he weathered a divorce and a serious bout with cancer, in both cases counting McCain among the friends who offered him support.
"They've had a very close personal relationship," said Howard Opinsky, another longtime McCain insider. "It was born out of all the time they spent together, and the respect they had for one another. John's loyalty to McCain has been unsurpassed."
Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.