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As Rivals Battle, McCain Builds November Machine

"Will it come together? Yes," said a top fundraiser who supported one of McCain's GOP rivals and is now backing the senator from Arizona. "Is it coming together? Yes. Are there folks who would have liked it to come together quicker? Yes."

Polls suggest that McCain's position on the sidelines of Democrats' infighting has elevated his stature, at least for now. In some surveys, McCain has a slight edge over Obama and Clinton. And conservative Republicans appear to be growing more comfortable with the sometimes maverick senator as their nominee.

But McCain's advisers acknowledge that the Republican Party still has an image problem. Generic ballot tests, whether for presidential or congressional elections, show Republicans running well behind Democrats, and part of the campaign's goal is to start rebranding the GOP.

McCain recruited two key officials at the RNC: Frank J. Donatelli, a Reagan administration official, will serve as deputy chairman and will be the campaign's liaison to the committee. Mike DuHaime, who managed former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's presidential campaign and used to be an RNC political director, will help staff the RNC's political team. He will also work directly for McCain.

The regional managers, most of whom have been chosen, will spend four days at the New Mexico resort this week. McCain aides said there will be intensive meetings with Republican chairmen from across the country, who are holding their annual meeting in the swing state.

"We prefer daily operational, tactical decisions be made by those guys," campaign manager Rick Davis said.

After essentially running out of money during the primaries, McCain was forced to rely heavily on his handful of workers -- many of whom were unpaid -- to run the essential operations on their own, with little direction from the national level.

The results, his advisers said, justified the unorthodox approach. His victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida were not the result of broad media campaigns driven by national operatives but rather of the ground games built by operatives in those states.

"We are going to try that kind of autonomy," senior strategist Mark Salter said.

That is a departure for a party that has prized itself on running hierarchical, highly disciplined campaigns, and it has sparked grumbling among some Republicans, who say McCain's advisers are moving too slowly to build a large national apparatus.

One senior GOP strategist called the decision "a recipe for internal communication problems and uneven execution." Another senior Republican said the lack of a political director or full-time pollster at McCain's Arlington headquarters has "a lot of us scratching our heads wondering what's taking so long to fill out the team."

Both Republican strategists spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could be candid about the party's presidential nominee.

Others are quick to defend McCain's team. "The grumbling is probably in direct proportion to how much they think they should be inside the campaign," said Dan Hazelwood, a GOP consultant who is not working for the campaign.

McCain aides reject the criticism, too. "Anybody who is grumbling doesn't know what's going on," Black said.

Davis said the decision to run a decentralized campaign reflects a pride in having run a lean and nimble primary operation after an initially bloated campaign structure imploded and fell far short of its budget and fundraising expectations.

Davis said the goal is to "keep the head count down" at headquarters. "I believe in speed. That's an important asset in a campaign."

Beyond transitioning from a hand-to-mouth primary operation to a full-blown general-election campaign, McCain will spend the next month attempting to put a more appealing face on his party.

The senator has chosen former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina to be a high-profile pitchwoman for the campaign and the Republican Party. She will travel the country as a key surrogate for McCain and other Republicans.

McCain will be in Washington this month for the testimony of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Petraeus's testimony last fall was a signature event in McCain's primary campaign, as it coincided with a "No Surrender" tour that aides think helped boost his candidacy when he had been given up for the political graveyard.

Later this spring, McCain will embark on a two-week tour of places where, his advisers say, few Republicans ever campaign, including Alabama's Black Belt, where African Americans in the state are concentrated; Appalachia; and New Orleans. Davis said the goal is to send a message that McCain is appealing for votes from all types of Americans in all regions.

"Nothing is left off the table in this campaign," he said.

Staff writer Matthew Mosk and staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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