THE GURUS | When a Campaign Implodes

Rivalries Split McCain's Team

Senior adviser Mark Salter, right, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) in his Senate office. Salter had pushed for a leadership change in the campaign.
Senior adviser Mark Salter, right, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) in his Senate office. Salter had pushed for a leadership change in the campaign. (By Stephan Savoia -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear, Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 14, 2007

After weeks of internal struggles over who would run John McCain's presidential campaign, three key aides went to the candidate in January and told him he had to take action. Rick Davis, the campaign's chief executive, they said, should be pushed aside, and McCain had to make it clear that Terry Nelson, the campaign manager and a veteran of President Bush's 2004 team, was in charge.

But the senator from Arizona refused, telling the three aides -- John Weaver, Mark Salter and Nelson -- that he would not strip Davis of his title or empower Nelson. "You're all equals," McCain told them, according to one participant. "Work it out."

For McCain, the onetime insurgent then firmly ensconced as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, it was a fateful decision. Instead of easing tensions among his most trusted advisers, it only exacerbated them, and for the next six months two warring factions clashed repeatedly as McCain's fundraising stalled and his poll numbers dropped.

This week McCain finally took a dramatic step, as his aides had urged him. But instead of moving Davis aside, he put him in clear control of the campaign. Nelson quit, Weaver resigned, and a dozen senior staff members went with them. With their departure, virtually no money in the bank, and the layoffs of dozens of other staff members, a campaign that once seemed on an inevitable march to the nomination has been left struggling for survival.

Interviews with more than two dozen current and former McCain campaign staffers, many speaking on the condition of anonymity so they could talk candidly about internal deliberations, describe an organization with confused lines of authority and riven with petty jealousies.

On one side was Weaver, a political strategist who has served at McCain's side for a decade and is credited with engineering his presidential bid in 2000. A Southerner with a wry smile and a sharp wit, Weaver recruited Nelson, the political director of Bush's win over Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), to run the second try at victory.

Weaver had sold Nelson to McCain as an impartial manager, but others on the staff viewed him as "a Weaver plant," said one longtime McCain friend who regularly talks to the senator. "McCain never bonded with Terry Nelson. They just didn't click."

On the other side was Davis, a longtime McCain operative whose relationship with the candidate -- and with McCain's wife, Cindy -- rivals Weaver's. Observers initially expected Davis to head the presidential campaign, but after Nelson's arrival, his role as chief executive officer became unclear.

Nicolle Wallace, a former Bush communications director who is close to many of the people in McCain's orbit, lamented that "this whole thing is a very sad breakdown of decades-old relationships."

Many of McCain's current problems can be traced to factors outside the campaign organization, particularly his support for the Iraq war and immigration reform. And internal fights are nothing new in presidential campaigns -- Kerry fired his campaign manager before the primaries even began. But rarely has a campaign with such promise come tumbling down so quickly.

"I should have resigned in December when this wasn't settled and Terry wasn't given the authority any manager would need," Weaver said. "Every bad event in the campaign was a derivative of that event."

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