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GOP frets despite McCain's once-presumed advantage from Democrats' long fight

John McCain
REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Sen. John McCain campaigns in Denver on Tuesday.

When Sen. John McCain wrapped up the Republican nomination in March, the conventional wisdom was that the continuing fight to the finish in the Democratic primaries would enable McCain to build his organization, raise money, reach out to members of the Republican base and position himself for a strong run to November.

But in politics, things don't always turn out the way the experts say they will.

Two major stories, in Politico and The New York Times, paint a picture of a McCain campaign under duress.

Jonathan Martin and Mike Allen write in Politico:


"Once optimistic about John McCain's prospects for the fall general election, Republicans are increasingly concerned that he could wind up badly outgunned, saddled with serious deficiencies of money, organization and partisan intensity against the likely Democratic nominee, Barack Obama. After making a promising debut as their nominee, McCain has worried many Republicans by seeming to flounder during the past few weeks. The campaign has been rattled recently by fallout from McCain's determination to purge his campaign of lobbying conflicts. The departure of five staff members has provided ammunition to Democrats and produced a snarl of damaging news coverage questioning McCain's reformist image. ...
 
"GOP operatives and officials around the country acknowledge (Barack) Obama's commanding financial and organizational advantage as the general election begins to take shape, noting that he benefits from both the toxic climate for the GOP and a lengthy primary that has enabled him to build an organization in every state in America. ...

"Indeed, Republicans now fret that at the very time they expect to face an opponent who has generated record participation and enthusiasm, they are going into battle with a campaign whose mechanics are a generation behind — a pager measured against an iPhone."

'Worried about signs of disorder'

Adam Nagourney strikes a similar chord in The New York Times. "Senator John McCain's presidential campaign is in a troubled stretch, hindered by resignations of staff members, a lagging effort to build a national campaign organization and questions over whether he has taken full advantage of Democratic turmoil to present a case for his candidacy, Republicans say. In interviews, some party leaders said they were worried about signs of disorder in his campaign, and if the focus in the last several weeks on the prominent role of lobbyists in Mr. McCain's inner circle might undercut the heart of his general election message: that he is a reformer taking on special interests in Washington."

Nagourney quotes a former McCain campaign manager, Terry Nelson: "The core image of John McCain is as a reformer in Washington — and the more dominant the story is about the lobbying teams around him, the more you put that into question. If the Obama campaign can truly change him from being seen as a reformer to just being another Washington politician, it could be very damaging over the course of the campaign."

The McCain campaign insists it is making progress. The Times reports that "Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser, said Mr. McCain had used the time since effectively winning the nomination to methodically raise his standing by traveling the country, delivering speeches on issues including national security and the environment, and raising money, to make sure he could at least hold his own with Mr. Obama going through the summer."

The Times also reports that longtime McCain friend and adviser Mike Murphy was brought to the senator's ranch in Arizona for a heart-to-heart talk in which "Mr. Murphy urged him to tone down his attacks on Mr. Obama and stop coming across as so angry. He recommended that Mr. McCain concentrate on running as a reform candidate to strip that issue from Mr. Obama, and to make greater efforts to distance himself from Mr. Bush, Republicans familiar with the conversation said."

Footage of McCain with Bush kept to a minimum
No sooner said than done. The Wall Street Journal's Laura Meckler reported that "President Bush and John McCain will appear together at a fund-raiser in Phoenix Tuesday (yesterday), the first time in nearly three months that the Republican presidential candidate will be seen beside the man he hopes to succeed. With Mr. Bush's popularity at a record low, the McCain campaign has made sure that television footage of the two men together will be minimal. The maneuvering is the latest example of Sen. McCain's aggressive effort to separate himself from the White House, even as he embraces many of the policies that Mr. Bush has promoted throughout his presidency — and even as he benefits from the money that the president remains adept at raising. With growing frequency, Sen. McCain goes out of his way to highlight his differences with Mr. Bush."

Larry Jacobs, a political science professor and director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, told MinnPost that McCain "has two big problems that don't lend themselves to fixing. First, the Republican Party is in shambles — economic conservatives, social conservatives, and rank and file main street Republicans are tired and deflated. And second, every major indicator of the mood is as bad as or worse than any time in the past decade or more — presidential approval, wrong track, party identification, etc. The media keep looking for the personality magic. But McCain is facing a double team that is hard, but not impossible, to split."

So it seems every key issue, including reforming Washington, immigration and the war in Iraq, is a two-edged sword for McCain.

"Democrats have fueled the turmoil (over lobbyists in his campaign) but it's partly of McCain's making," writes the Associated Press's Liz Sedoti. "He's tried to straddle two worlds, being both a four-term senator known as a fighter of special interests and a candidate whose campaign has employed people with long lobbying records. The dual role is proving problematic."

A key voting group this fall will be Hispanic voters. Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News reports from Colorado that "with Barack Obama his likely opponent in the fall, John McCain sees an opportunity to make inroads among Hispanic voters by touting himself as a different kind of Republican. But in doing so, Mr. McCain runs a considerable risk: further alienating the GOP base, which already mistrusts him on immigration issues."

A real tightrope walk
Slater quotes Celia Muñoz of the National Council of La Raza, a nonpartisan Hispanic advocacy group, as saying, "It's a tightrope. How does he convince Latinos that you're on their side while convincing the rabidly anti-immigration faction of his own party?"

On the war in Iraq, opposed now by a majority of Americans, McCain a former prisoner of war in Vietnam and Navy pilot, "frequently argues that he's the most qualified candidate to be a wartime commander in chief," according to the AP. "In recent weeks, he has sought to portray Obama, a first-term senator, as naive on foreign policy and not experienced enough to lead the military." He even floated the idea this week in an interview with the A.P. that he accompany Obama to Iraq for a briefing.

The week was not all negative news for McCain. His doctors held a news conference and pronounced him fit to run for President and serve if elected. The Los Angeles Times reports that "John McCain is in good health despite a 15-year history of skin cancers, including a minor case as recently as February, and bouts with precancerous polyps in his colon, cysts in his kidney and stones in his bladder, his doctors said Friday (May 23)."

And the New York Times reports that "although Mr. Obama has continued to raise far more money than Mr. McCain, Mr. Bush's fund-raising machinery has helped keep the Republican Party competitive. The McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee between them, have $11 million more on hand — about $62 million — than the combined cash-on-hand of Mr. Obama and the Democratic National Committee." The Times quotes campaign adviser Steve Schmidt:

"How do you measure success over the course of the spring campaign? This is how: The reality of this race is the Republican Party brand is very, very badly damaged, in some places broken. We've lost Congressional seats in districts that have elected only Republican for a generation. And Senator McCain is running even or ahead of Senator Obama in most national polls."

In other words, it's a long way until November.

Doug Stone is director of College Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul and a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. The views in this article are not those of Macalester College.

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