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.

"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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