After the mass firings, anemic poll results, poor fund-raising totals, large expenditures, and now, on July 10, the resignations of two of his top aides, one might expect John McCain’s supporters to be in a state of panic.
For now, though, they’re putting a brave face on things.
“Counting John McCain out of anything out he’s involved in is like counting out Muhammad Ali out the first time he got hit on the chin,” said Lewis Eisenberg, the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a major Republican fund-raiser.
“I think it is a pretty positive thing has happened,” added Mr. Eisenberg. “The captain of this ship and the future of the president of the United States are one and the same. He knew how to make a mid-course adjustment, and I think the senator has made the right move.”
Mr. Eisenberg was referring in particular to the departures of campaign manager Terry Nelson and chief strategist John Weaver, whose resignations were announced in a single e-mail from the McCain press operation.
The statement of Mr. Weaver, who has been a constant in Mr. McCain’s political life since he first ran for president, was particularly poignant, underscoring the serious difficulties the campaign has encountered raising money and building support for Mr. McCain.
“As of today, I have resigned my position as chief strategist to John McCain’s presidential campaign,” he said in the statement. “It has been my honor and a distinct privilege to serve someone who has always put our country first. I believe that most Americans will come to the conclusion that I have long known there is only one person equipped to serve as our nation’s chief executive and deal with the challenges we face, and that person is John McCain.”
Several donors said they had heard that Mr. Nelson had been fired in response to the campaign’s out-of-control spending, though many said they were stunned to see Mr. Weaver resign, and were not clear as to whether he did so voluntarily or not.
The campaign said that both Mr. Nelson and Mr. Weaver chose to leave out of a sense of responsibility for the campaign’s financial travails, and that they put Mr. McCain’s interests above their own.
The campaign also said that Mark Salter, Mr. McCain’s longtime chief-of-staff and co-author on all his books, had taken himself off payroll and would continue working as a senior advisor to Mr. McCain for free.
As widespread speculation set in over whether the resignations meant the immediate end to Mr. McCain’s pursuit of the presidency, the senator followed up with his own statement, expressing “regret and deep gratitude” to the departed staffers and a commitment to “continue to address the issues of greatest concern to the American people, laying out my vision for a secure and prosperous America.”
Later in the afternoon, he held a conference call with major donors, trying to put as positive a spin as possible on the day’s dreary events. He told donors that he had promoted Rick Davis as campaign manager, that the finance structure was in decent shape and that Mr. Nelson and Mr. Weaver would stay close to the campaign as friends and advisers. About eight donors asked questions that reflected their confidence in the campaign, said several sources in on the call.
But not all of Mr. McCain’s top donors seemed so enthusiastic.
“It was inevitable,” said Georgette Mosbacher, a top Republican donor supporting Mr. McCain. “Let’s face it—you can’t burn through that kind of money.”
She was referring to the millions of dollars in campaign expenditures that the campaign went through to apparently limited results. Mr. McCain, who raised $11 million in the last fund-raising quarter has only about $2 million of cash on hand. He trails Rudy Giuliani in national polls and Mitt Romney has built a much more effective campaign infrastructure in the primary states.
“I was saddened,” she said about hearing of Mr. Weaver’s resignation. “But that’s what restructuring is all about. Did anyone think that anything else would happen? It’s all about the money.”
Ms. Mosbacher herself said she was now contemplating leaving the McCain campaign if former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee entered the race, though she argued it had nothing to do with Mr. McCain’s unexpectedly poor showing.
“I have already told John that if Fred jumps in, Fred is family, and I’m with Fred,” said Ms. Mosbacher. “I was with John last time around, and I was with him this time. But Fred supercedes that.”
Mr. McCain’s chief rival in the primary election, Rudy Giuliani, refused on Tuesday to count his rival out of the race.
When asked about the resignations at a press conference in New Hampshire, Mr. Giuliani called Mr. McCain a “fighter” and said, “Just think of how many times before you thought a candidate was at an end. And they came back.”
Indeed, many of Mr. McCain’s chief donors stayed entirely committed to the candidate, and argued that the change in staffing did not indicate a fatal flaw in the campaign and that all reports of the campaign’s demise were premature.
Reflecting what is likely to be the new spin coming out of the now-gutted McCain campaign, Mr. Eisenberg said that Mr. Davis was ready to lead “a lean mean fighting machine that will bring Senator McCain the nomination and the presidency.”
Other key donors to Mr. McCain offered similar support to the Arizona senator.
“Some of the press is going to spin this as a terrible setback; I think that is BS,” said Fred Malek, who ran the elder Bush’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was a partner of the current president in owning the Texas Rangers. “We’re going to take a little bit of a setback in the polls in the next few days, and this change will ruffle some people, but so what, it’s July.”
Mr. Malek said that if the campaign was looked at in business terms, it was apparent that something needed to be shaken up.
“If you are a chairman of the board,” he said, “and you are running a company and your CEO’s expenditures continue to exceed revenues, you might consider a change.”
With Mr. Nelson and Mr. Weaver gone, and Mr. Salter taking himself off payroll, the burden now felt on Mr. Davis to turn things around.
A source inside the campaign said that Mr. Davis had been going around the country for the past three or four months trying to assure the most important national donors that the campaign would get back on track. In light of the campaign burning through roughly $20 million, the source said, those donors will likely require that they be in the loop about budget expenditures, how the money is spent, where and why.
The source said that the campaign’s finance officials were astonished to see that it had only $2 million on hand at the end of a second fund-raising quarter that was supposed to inject life back into the moribund campaign.
“We didn’t do TV,” said the source, who added that money should have been saved by shaving off a huge chunk of campaign staff last week. “We are out there raising money and I was pleased with $11 million under the circumstances, with immigration and everything, and I too was surprised that we only had $2 million.”