Big Six Candidates Shuffle Strategy

generic presidentiual election 08 Barack Obama Hillary Clinton Rudy Giuliani John McCain campaign white house (Mitt Romney) AP/CBS

By The Politico's Mike Allen.
Surprising fundraising totals, combined with a couple of notable gaffes last week, have reshuffled the presidential field and prompted top-tier candidates in both parties to make at least minor — and in some cases more substantial — alterations to their strategies.

Familiar assumptions about who is inevitable and who is simply treading water have been dislodged since the recent close of the first-quarter fundraising period. The Politico checked in with aides and advisers to each of the Big Six for a snapshot of how they see the new landscape and how they plan to capitalize on — or recover from — the spate of unexpected developments:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

On Wednesday, McCain will try to take the offensive on a potentially crippling issue by stepping into a presidential setting at Virginia Military Institute to implore Americans to give President Bush's "surge" strategy — and, by implication, the McCain candidacy — a chance. Aides say the senator plans to portray Iraq as part of a larger, ongoing struggle for the soul of the Muslim world and will discuss what has gone wrong and what has gone right. McCain had planned to make his candidacy official about now, but he's instead doing damage control after coming in last in fundraising among top-tier candidates and undermining his "straight talk" trademark with a rosy account of conditions in Baghdad.

McCain now plans to begin his announcement tour April 25 in New Hampshire, followed by one-day blitzes of South Carolina, Iowa and Arizona. Before then, however, he is trying to revive his old luster on issues that once were central to his reformer profile: There will be a speech in Memphis on spending control, taxes and trade, as well as another policy address the following week, tentatively touting free-market energy policies similar to those promoted by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani

The former New York mayor might have enhanced his own reputation for straight talk, but it could have come at the cost of conservative primary voters when he answered "yes" to CNN's Dana Bash when asked if he still favors public funding for some abortions. Aides say he intended to make it clear that he doesn't plan to pander to the party's right wing, but even some GOP moderates were aghast. Now, Giuliani's more precise — and more political — message is that he favors the status quo and wouldn't try to change current law. And he will say he doesn't think abortion should be criminalized.

Giuliani, who got an effusive reception at the conservative Club for Growth late last month, hopes to transcend the stumble over abortion by emphasizing economic issues, combined with a claim that he is "the true fiscal conservative in the race." He will amplify his calls for tax simplification and elimination of the inheritance tax, which he and other Republicans call the "death tax." Previewing Giuliani's message, an aide says: "He took a city with out-of-control spending, reined it in and lowered taxes 23 times. He doesn't just talk about these things. He actually did it."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney

Appearing to be the well-organized businessman his résumé suggests, Romney was the champion Republican fundraiser and is now getting a second look from old hands in the Washington establishment, some of whom say in interviews that Romney may wind up as the nominee by process of elimination if McCain and Giuliani stumble. The morning after the money announcement, Kevin Madden, Romney's campaign press secretary, started his daily memo to reporters with a cheeky shout-out to "all the new additions to the Romney Rundown e-mail list that signed up yesterday."

An aide says Romney will "use this stage that he now has" to talk about big issues. On Tuesday, Romney will travel to the George Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, to deliver a speech calling for revitalizing American alliances to take on global terrorism, in the same way the U.S. looked abroad after World War II. The subtext might seem to be that Romney is calling for greater engagement abroad than is practiced by this administration, but the campaign says the address is not meant as subtle criticism or political triangulation. Aides say the speech will also call for a reversal of several Clinton administration policy decisions on weapons and defense spending.
  • Brittney Andres

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