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."
Black and other aides are also determined to start crafting McCain's public image. They released a two-minute, online ad Friday called "Man in the Arena," which compares McCain to former British prime minister Winston Churchill and former president Theodore Roosevelt, focusing on McCain's military service and his support for the Iraq war.
"Keep that faith. Keep your courage. Stick together. Stay strong. Do not yield. Do not flinch. Stand up," a fiery McCain says in the ad. "We're Americans. We're Americans, and we'll never surrender. They will."
Free to leave the country without worrying about incoming fire from a Democratic nominee, McCain will travel this month on a 10-day trip to Europe, and possibly to Iraq, as part of a congressional delegation. He and other senators will meet with foreign leaders, according to top-level aides familiar with the travel plans.
Aides say he would have taken the trip even if he had lost the nomination battle. But they say the image of a globetrotting McCain, holding news conferences in world capitals, is the perfect way to assert his claim of having more experience in foreign policy.
"When you are standing on the world stage with significant international leaders, and the Democrats are throwing deck chairs at each other, there is a dichotomy to the race that works in our favor -- particularly when the Democrats are having a fight over preparedness, experience and readiness," said one top aide, who requested anonymity because the trip has not been publicly announced.
The senator will return from his trip to give a series of policy speeches during April, aides said. The speeches will focus on the economy, the environment, health care and foreign policy.
"We've got to get our policies in order, hone all of our policies, get some speeches made, lay out our specific proposals," McCain told reporters last week.
McCain's "bio-tour" will include several stops that are not typical for Republicans. One adviser explained that efforts to woo Hispanic voters will require that the senator visit areas that most Republicans consider hostile territory.
"You can't just go to the Hispanic country club and talk to middle-class Hispanics," the adviser said. "We'll go into barrios and try to give them an inspiring message about how McCain's policies will help the whole community, just to give you one example."
But even as they work to build up McCain's image, his staff and other Republicans are keenly aware of the need to start tearing down the Democratic candidates while they remain consumed with one another.
Each morning, the RNC sends out an e-mail it calls the YAK! to radio talk show hosts across the country. Thursday's YAK!, for instance, urged chatter about Obama's links to Tony Rezko, a Chicago developer on trial for bribery; the "Bruised, Bitter, And 'Combustible' " Clinton campaign; and "Aristocrats And Interest Group Leaders To Decide Democrat Nominee." The RNC also has a full-time employee dedicated to ramping up McCain's message with bloggers.
The effort isn't foolproof, and McCain has already been burned by overeager Republicans who were trying to help. Bill Cunningham, an Ohio shock jock, used Obama's middle name, Hussein, repeatedly and derisively at an event where he introduced McCain. The Tennessee GOP did the same thing in a statement. McCain condemned both.
"People want to get at it," a senior Republican strategist said of the conservative radio hosts and bloggers. "There's a lot of anxiousness. What does that tell you? It tells you that the machine is really anxious to get out. It tells me there are people chomping at the bit to get to work."
One source of help could be Freedom's Watch, a lobbying group backed with money from major Republican donors, including Sheldon Adelson, the chairman and chief executive of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., and Mel Sembler, the strip-mall magnate from St. Petersburg, Fla. There is speculation the group will get involved in the presidential race, though it has given no indication yet that it intends to do so.
Freedom's Watch already helped orchestrate a $12 million ad campaign promoting efforts in Iraq that coincided with McCain's "No Surrender" tour. And those guiding the group's efforts include a stable of former McCain staffers, including Megan Ortagus, a former regional political coordinator; Ed Patru, who worked on his 2000 primary campaign; Jay Zeidman, who was on McCain's finance staff; and Mike Leavitt, who served as the senator's deputy political director until late last year.
Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.