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Inside McCain Camp, a Mood of Gritty Determination

Sen. John McCain, in Durango, Colo., on Friday. Despite polls showing him behind, his aides remain upbeat. "He's been in tougher spots than being behind in a few polls," Steve Schmidt said.
Sen. John McCain, in Durango, Colo., on Friday. Despite polls showing him behind, his aides remain upbeat. "He's been in tougher spots than being behind in a few polls," Steve Schmidt said. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008

ALBUQUERQUE, Oct. 25 -- Only a few hundred people were on hand at the New Mexico state fairgrounds Saturday morning to hear Sen. John McCain's acknowledgment that "we're a few points down" in the polls and to cheer loudly when he bellowed, "We've got them right where we want them!"

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The small crowd in a state now believed to be leaning strongly toward his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, added to the sense of fatalism that many Republicans now have about their chances of retaining the White House. But inside the McCain campaign the mood remains one of gritty resolve. Top aides know they are behind, but they hold out hope and, like their candidate, stubbornly refuse to give up.

"He's been in tougher spots than being behind in a few polls," senior adviser Steve Schmidt said in an interview Saturday morning. Schmidt has taken on the role of chief morale officer and according to campaign sources delivered an impassioned plea to staff members at McCain national headquarters in Arlington two weeks ago.

"Being part of an effort that fails does not make you a loser; it makes you a competitor," Schmidt, a former Bush White House official, told them. "What makes you a loser is curling up into the fetal position at a time of adversity. The only thing that would ever define anyone as a loser is to quit before it is over."

His words were meant to buck them up, but they betrayed the fear among McCain's senior advisers of where the presidential race is probably headed. A top aide to the campaign said later that "people know exactly where the race is. But people continue to fight to the end."

McCain's Arlington headquarters still buzzes with activity. The number of days until the election is written on dry-erase boards. Young opposition researchers intently monitor a bank of flat-screen televisions.

But the news on those TVs is almost entirely bleak for McCain, who has watched a small lead in the middle of September vanish into a double-digit deficit in most public polls. And the anonymous finger-pointing and rationalizing has already begun.

In the Washington echo chamber, unnamed GOP officials are publicly second-guessing Schmidt and the other top McCain campaign officials. They say McCain abandoned his successful brand, made erratic and confusing tactical decisions and has not been consistent in his descriptions of Obama.

Many of the accusations come from Capitol Hill, where the mood is even darker. House Republicans are resigned to losing a large number of seats; among GOP strategists, the only question at this point is whether that number is closer to 20 or 40.

The fight last month over economic rescue legislation split the party in two, with many conservatives opposed to the measure and angered by their leaders' support of the package, and Republican strategists now see their fates as inexorably linked to the bailout and the broader economy.

"Clearly the X factor is how the economic rescue package plays and how the stock market does," a Republican leadership aide said.

The same is true for McCain's White House prospects, said his advisers, who have watched as economic conditions have led less than 10 percent of Americans to say that the country is headed in the right direction.


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