John McCain has a problem, and it is one that he and his staff welcome.
The Arizona senator's insurgent campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has been gaining ground in recent weeks. In New Hampshire, he is virtually even with or slightly ahead of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the national front-runner. But that success means more scrutiny of McCain's words and ideas, and more pressure on his bare-bones staff to produce speeches and craft detailed policy positions that will withstand the scrutiny.
So far, McCain has largely served as his own one-man policy adviser, fielding hundreds of questions on dozen of topics at town hall meetings, which are the central vehicle of his campaign.
His aides say the heavy reliance on town hall meetings will not change in the near future. But as the contest moves into a new phase, McCain and his staff are trying to gear up their operation to match his rising expectations.
Next month, during the four weeks leading up to the crucial Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary, McCain is scheduled to give speeches on education, Social Security and tax policy, as well as on citizenship. In February, when South Carolina, Michigan and Arizona will hold important primaries, McCain is scheduled to give speeches on crime and drugs, and technology.
Dan Schnur, McCain's communications director, said about six people are working on policy development at the campaign's Alexandria headquarters. The bulk of McCain's speeches are written by Schnur, policy coordinator John Raidt, and Mark Salter, McCain's Senate chief of staff, who works on campaign matters during off hours. The organization also has about 20 outside experts who provide advice to McCain's staff. Lisa Graham Keegan, Arizona's superintendent of public education, is among those working on McCain's education speech.
In contrast, the Bush campaign, which is more than three times the size of McCain's, has a policy staff of 12 and two full-time speechwriters at its Austin headquarters. Like the McCain campaign, it also has an extensive network of outside experts in various fields to call on for advice.
Some of the strain on the McCain campaign was evident earlier this month when the senator delivered a speech on health care in Charleston, S.C. McCain's health care plan was far less ambitious than those of his Democratic presidential rivals, Vice President Gore and former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, but he was the first GOP candidate to produce any kind of overall health care proposal.
Some campaigns might have accompanied the speech with a detailed description of the plan and made available one or more experts to answer questions. The McCain campaign provided a 1 1/2-page press release that summarized the speech but provided no details about the plan's cost or expected impact. Some of the information McCain aides initially provided in response to questions turned out to be erroneous.
As for having a health care expert available, McCain was it. He held a news conference after the speech, and when he couldn't remember the cost of the plan, he promised to provide a fact sheet, which his aides scrambled to produce later in the day.
Schnur said there are plans to beef up the staff, but added, "We're never going to be in the position of a [Steve] Forbes or Bush campaign where we can fill up an office building."
Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, and Mike Murphy, his media consultant, also argue that at this stage in the race for the GOP nomination, specific policy positions are less important than voters' perceptions of the candidates' leadership abilities. McCain's use of the town hall format, where he answers questions on any topic, is meant to reinforce his central theme that he's "ready to be president."
"It's more about personal characteristics than policy positions," Davis said. "If you look at policy, there's not a wide swath of difference. All of these guys are conservatives. It's a very homogeneous group of candidates in terms of issues. But can they lead? Are they prepared to be president? This is what we have been campaigning on."
There will be plenty of time later for McCain and his staff to develop detailed proposals on specific issues, Murphy said.
"This is a problem you love to have," he added. "When you get successful, people say you could be president, we want more details about your ideas. We love having this challenge."
CAPTION: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), shown campaigning last week in South Carolina, will speak on education, taxes and more before New Hampshire primary.