McCain Sits in Campaign's Catbird Seat as Democrats Bicker

Republican presidential candidate John McCain (R-Ariz.) talks to reporters aboard his campaign plane in flight from Atlanta to New Orleans.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain (R-Ariz.) talks to reporters aboard his campaign plane in flight from Atlanta to New Orleans. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has sketched out an ambitious plan to exploit the ongoing bickering between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), through weeks of heavy fundraising, a trip abroad, policy speeches and a biography tour aimed at broadening his appeal beyond traditional Republican voters.

As his rivals clash over who is qualified to answer a 3 a.m. phone call in the White House, McCain will meet with foreign leaders in Europe and the Middle East. While Obama and Clinton argue about do-over primaries in Florida and Michigan, McCain will be free to roam the country, giving speeches, holding town-hall meetings and raking up cash.

The strategy is being launched as some in the Republican Party worry that McCain will be forgotten amid the news media's intense focus on the Democratic presidential race. "Understandably," McCain quipped to reporters on his plane last week. "I'll be watching, too."

The evolving plan also calls for the Republican National Committee to use the time to seed the conservative echo chamber -- blogs, talk radio and independent groups -- with red-meat rhetoric and ammunition about the lack of Democratic qualifications.

"You'd rather be the definer than the defined," said Jill Hazelbaker, McCain's communications director.

Few in either party thought it would be like this. Many more expected that the Democrats would settle quickly on a nominee while the fractured Republican Party dithered. As recently as January, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum predicted that the GOP was "headed for a brokered convention. I don't think we're going to get a nominee."

Publicly, McCain shrugs when asked whether the Democratic battle helps or hurts his nascent general election campaign. Some senior GOP strategists, including former White House adviser Karl Rove, fear that the red-hot Democratic contest could make McCain look irrelevant, forcing him out of the daily news reports.

"Mr. McCain becomes less interesting to the media. Stories about him move off page one and grow smaller. TV coverage becomes spotty and short," Rove wrote in an opinion article published Thursday in the Wall Street Journal.

But top McCain advisers think it is a gift, and the push to raise money -- verging on desperate after Obama's $55 million haul in February -- has already been unleashed.

McCain's campaign schedule this week is almost entirely geared toward fundraising in St. Louis, New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago. His only real campaign event is a town hall meeting Wednesday in Exeter, N.H., which is being billed as a thank-you visit to the state that vaulted him to the nomination with a win in January.

On Friday, the campaign installed Lew Eisenberg, a former top fundraiser for President Bush, at the RNC to coordinate fundraising efforts there. So far, the national committee's $25 million bankroll is the one bright spot for McCain and the GOP, far exceeding the current assets of the Democratic National Committee.

"We have to raise money," said Charles Black, a top political adviser to McCain. "Probably the biggest advantage that this time gives us is that, while they are spending their money on each other, we can go out and raise money and put it in the bank."

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