The McCain campaign rode into the ’08 race on a wave of Bush comparisons: the same aura of inevitability, similarly hawkish foreign policies and even the same foot soldiers who staffed the President’s winning efforts. Now, after months of sagging poll numbers and lackluster fund-raising totals, the conservative Republican has an unlikely new campaign hero: John Kerry.
“These same people wrote off John Kerry in October of ’03—‘dead,’ ‘broke,’” McCain strategist John Weaver told The Politico last week. “He won the nomination basically three months later.”
Certainly, they’re similar: Both are Vietnam veterans and longtime Senators who entered the primary season as front-runners.
But it isn’t hard to see grimmer likenesses: a revolving door of campaign consultants, a chronically disappointing cash haul and a media story line mostly centered on process-related chaos. Mr. McCain now finds himself barely clinging to top-tier status, having spent most of the spring trailing in some major polls of G.O.P. primary voters—by double-digit margins in many, placing as low as fourth in one recent Rasmussen poll—and confronting dismal fund-raising numbers.
Like Mr. Kerry in 2004, Mr. McCain is being written off by activists within his party. And like Mr. Kerry, John McCain is counting on New Hampshire to rescue his run.
“We feel very good about the work we’ve done in the early primary states now. We feel good about the ground game,” says McCain communication director Brian Jones. “Certainly the campaign has had to deal with some issues over the past month, over the past few months, that have been very challenging in some respects. But people who write off Senator McCain do so at their own peril.”
Over the past few weeks, the campaign has seemed at least to stabilize itself. After losing a spate of high-profile staffers and consultants—along with more than a third of their staff in budget-mandated cuts—a predicted exodus of major donors and talent to Fred Thompson’s nascent effort hasn’t yet happened.
Now McCain staffers are trying to get some buzz back by plugging details of their mid-summer campaign strategy. This isn’t their first comeback attempt—it isn’t even their first comeback attempt this quarter. But their agenda, which follows the outlines of John Kerry’s ’03-’04 battle plan, is by far their most ambitious effort yet.
The spring reorganization of Mr. McCain’s fund-raising apparatus—a makeover designed to end their money woes by making the effort look a lot more like the Bush machine—will be followed by a marathon nationwide fund-raising sprint, they say. The campaign’s new “systems of accountability” include a multi-tiered finance strategy—a pyramid-shaped donor chart that tops out with 15 “national co-chairs” who have pledged to raise more than a million dollars for the Senator, including New York Stock Exchange C.E.O. John Thain and Cisco Systems C.E.O. John Chambers, with tiers for the McCain 200’s (who have pledged to raise at least $200,000 each) and the McCain 100’s (at least $100,000 each).
As this structure grinds into gear, the campaign is planning at least three dozen fund-raising events over the next month. The Senator will be making a new push on the front end as well, planning a dizzying series of policy forums and town halls on Iraq and energy issues. He’s been preparing exhaustively for a tight schedule of summer speeches, town hall forums and primary debates.
And his campaign has stepped up its attacks on Mitt Romney, whose gains in the polls and among the party establishment have come largely at Mr. McCain’s expense. “In October or November, this kind of back-and-forth can backfire. Voters look for a third candidate to support,” says the University of Virginia political-science professor Larry Sabato. “If they’re going to do it, they can’t do it in six months. They have to act now.”
The campaign had little choice but to play up the upcoming blitz, making the summer strategy into an all-or-nothing gambit. “They’ve ratcheted up expectations—putting all their chips on the table, I guess you could call it,” said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. “If the fund-raising numbers are still disappointing after this, if poll numbers continue to slide, if Fred Thompson skyrockets when he gets in the race, the bad buzz will just become overwhelming.”
In other words, if Mr. McCain is to achieve the sort of comeback victory that Mr. Kerry managed in the 2004 primary, he’ll have to show signs of long-term viability that, for the moment, he’s sorely lacking.
“Success breeds success and failure breeds failure,” observes Democratic strategist Steven Elmendorf, who was deputy campaign manager for John Kerry in 2004. “Primary voters want someone who can win, and John McCain doesn’t look like he can.”