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McCain Driving Debate, But Some Fear Swerving

Some Republicans say McCain's message has wavered in the hands of his campaign staff.
Some Republicans say McCain's message has wavered in the hands of his campaign staff. (Fred Chartrand - AP)

Democratic officials questioned why, then, the campaign paid for the Canada trip and brought reporters along. And they said the event with executives could qualify as an in-kind contribution since some of McCain's comments there were reportedly political in nature.

The McCain campaign did get a bit of good news last week: It raised about the same amount of money in May as the Obama campaign did, and the Republican trails by only a little in cash on hand.

But as the criticisms mount, McCain has begun to make some changes to his operation and adapt to a general-election race against a well-funded opponent with a large and sophisticated political organization.

At the request of campaign manager Rick Davis, senior adviser Steve Schmidt will leave McCain's side on the trail and return to headquarters for what a source said will be a "much greater operational role" in the campaign. A former aide to Cheney, Schmidt managed California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's reelection campaign. His portfolio will expand to include strategy, communications, policy, scheduling and other areas, the campaign source said.

Former Bush communications director Nicolle Wallace joined McCain's campaign as a senior strategist in May. Last week, she spent time with McCain on his plane for the first time. Matt McDonald, another veteran of the Bush and Schwarzenegger teams, has also been added to the campaign.

Despite those moves, McCain's campaign continues to be led by a relatively insular group of advisers who stuck by him during the darkest times of his primary campaign. Interviews with lawmakers and Republican operatives last week revealed concern about their strategy.

"The biggest mistake they are making, they are trying to walk this tightrope between creating distance from Bush and not angering the base," said a Michigan Republican operative who described himself as nervous about McCain's chances of victory in that swing state.

"He's got to highlight the things that used to make conservatives pull their hair out," said the Michigan operative. "I don't think they are doing that very well."

Another Republican strategist, who worked for a rival GOP campaign during the primary and has ties to Bush's political team, said the McCain team has "not really figured out" how to present McCain to voters: as an experienced conservative leader or a reformer who wants change.

"To them, McCain is inevitable," the GOP strategist said. "They are good on the opposition research side of forcing the agenda. But who John McCain is and what he stands for -- it's a little hard to connect all the dots."

The problem has played out in the campaign's changing slogans. On June 3, a much-ridiculed green background behind McCain sported the new phrase "A Leader We Can Believe In," a play on Obama's message of "Change We Can Believe In." But just a few days later the campaign had ditched that slogan and replaced it with "Reform. Prosperity. Peace."

McCain or his aides seem to have undercut their message at times.

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