As Rivals Battle, McCain Builds November Machine

By Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

As his Democratic presidential rivals squabble, Sen. John McCain has moved to transform his ragtag primary campaign into a general-election operation by boosting fundraising, establishing control over the Republican National Committee, and beginning a conversation with voters who live in states where he has not campaigned.

One of McCain's first decisions has been to assemble a novel and risky campaign structure that will rely on 10 "regional managers" who will make daily decisions in the states under their direction, his advisers said. The managers will gather today in New Mexico to plot strategy with GOP state officials.

Some Republican strategists have said that McCain has not made the best use of the extra time that the prolonged Democratic nomination battle has given him. They have criticized the pace and direction of his decisions and have questioned why the senator from Arizona has not held more fundraisers to close the huge financial gap between him and his rivals.

Despite scheduling numerous events designed to grab attention, including a trip to meet with leaders in Iraq, Israel and Europe, McCain has struggled to be heard during the battle between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. The few times he has broken through have largely been because of questionable decisions or mistakes, such as when he confused Sunni and Shiite extremists and when he was criticized for accepting the endorsement of a controversial television evangelist.

McCain embarked yesterday on his latest effort to capture the spotlight: his "Service to America" tour. The week-long journey will put him in locations that have been influential in shaping his life -- including his family's ancestral home in Meridian, Miss.; the Naval Academy in Annapolis; and the naval air station in Jacksonville, Fla., where he arrived after more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

The growing McCain team is also under no illusions about the financial and political energy of the opposition, noting the huge turnouts in Democratic primaries and the enormous sums of money Obama and Clinton have raised.

In February, the month he effectively clinched the GOP nomination, McCain raised $11 million -- an eighth of the combined total of his Democratic rivals.

A number of Mitt Romney's supporters said McCain's effort to win over his ex-rival's biggest donors has had mixed results.

"Some of the top leadership, who were very emotionally involved, still can't get over it," said Brad Freeman, a California financier who backed the former Massachusetts governor. "They said, 'Hey, I'm not being rational. But right now I can't.' Fact is, Romney inspired a lot of loyalty and enthusiasm in people."

Aides to McCain said that fundraising has improved, and that they raised $5 million in a five-day West Coast swing last week. Senior adviser Charles R. Black Jr. said the March fundraising take will be "an impressive number," though he declined to provide one.

One element that will work in McCain's favor in coming weeks is the formation of the Republican Party's Victory Committee, which can put together events that are held jointly by the senator and the Republican National Committee. Those events can bring in nearly $30,000 per person because the limits for giving to the RNC are much higher than those for candidates.

The naming last month of Lew Eisenberg, a former partner at Goldman Sachs and one of the heaviest hitters in Republican money circles, as the finance chairman of the Victory Committee silenced many of McCain's critics on the fundraising front.

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