Some members of the business community are just as mystified about their role, if any, in the presumptive Republican nominee’s campaign.
It’s a disorienting state for people who were recruited — or herded — into campaign assignments by an über-organized Bush-Cheney team during the past two presidential campaigns.
Some are explaining their quandary this way: The Bush campaigns, they say, were like cruise ships, with lots of space for everyone and crews eager to find jobs for all comers. Together, they sailed through the often rough waters to the White House — and reelection.
The McCain campaign seems more like a pirate ship. It has a small, feisty and loyal crew that’s uninviting to outsiders. It careens around the campaign seas, sometimes attacking, more often skirting disasters. It’s happy for others to come along for the journey; they just have to bring their own pirate ships.
It’s a metaphor that has been circulating throughout Washington in recent weeks. I heard this account from three different people in three different conversations last week. They all ended with the same bemused shrug.
Some of the confusion is simply due to time constraints.
Because of earlier financial struggles, McCain couldn’t build a first-class campaign operation.
Now he’s trying to do in a matter of months what Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have had nearly two years to do.
And that’s forcing the McCain campaign to make hard choices about what it can realistically achieve.
Take, for instance, an office of political outreach, a mainstay in most modern campaigns. Think “Farmers for Bush,” “Women for Hillary” or “Hispanics for Obama.”
Those operations historically have helped candidates build bridges or stoke excitement in demographic sectors, essential to building a winning majority. With today’s new emphasis on microtargeting — think NASCAR fans (R), Volvo owners (D) or fishermen (I) — they are more important than ever.
But, for time and cost reasons, McCain’s campaign essentially has turned over its outreach program to the Republican National Committee. That creates an extra step for volunteers accustomed to signing up through the campaign headquarters. It also risks tamping down enthusiasm for some activists, since it’s the candidate, not the party, who inspires them in presidential years.
While some programs can be outsourced, fundraising isn’t one of them, and that’s where the campaign’s mixed signals to the business and lobbying communities could hurt McCain.
According to his campaign advisers, McCain’s finance operation is growing steadily. He raised $18.5 million in April — a record, but still far behind Obama’s $32 million that month.
The McCain campaign is hoping for an even bigger bounty this month. The ranks of his surrogate fundraisers — nicknamed the Trailblazers (those who raise $250,000), the Innovators (the $100,000 club) and the Aviators (the $50,000, younger fundraisers) — are growing.
Still, there are storm clouds. The McCain campaign has moved a fundraiser in Phoenix with President Bush on Tuesday from the sprawling Phoenix Convention Center to a private residence amid reports of sagging ticket sales and planned anti-war protests. Another fundraiser in Salt Lake City on Wednesday with Bush and former Gov. Mitt Romney was also moved from a hotel to a private residence, where there will be no press coverage of McCain and Bush, who is at historic lows in public opinion polls.
All the money raised will cover travel and other expenses until the Republican National Convention in early September. After McCain’s official nomination in Minnesota, many of those fundraiserswill join forces with the RNC. McCain hopes to maximize his general election cash by coordinating turnout and advertising expenses with the national committee.
Success will be critical since Obama, the expected Democratic nominee, “can sleep and raise money on the Internet,” said one McCain fundraiser.
Messages to the McCain campaign seeking comment were not answered.
Given the fundraising challenge, though, the McCain campaign’s careless handling of its relations with Big Business and the lobbying community seems all the more peculiar.
The two communities represent some of the smartest and most experienced talent pools in either party, but particularly among Republicans.
In the Bush years, many business leaders learned and mastered their natural assignments. Some became fundraisers, others provided event sites, some served as liaisons and surrogates to important local leaders.
Without breaking a sweat, they could whip up a presidential campaign photo opportunity at a manufacturing plant with a ready-made audience of smiling hard hats.
“You can call them to active duty, and they are seasoned players,” explained one McCain supporter.
But thus far, there hasn’t been much of an all-call to the business community to join McCain’s team. And, to the extent there has been outreach, last week’s lobbying purge sent up a yellow caution flag.
It’s one thing to see headlines about big-name lobbyists getting the boot, but how many chief executive officers would be willing to risk such a public relations debacle?
“There is a tremendous amount of confusion,” said one McCain supporter, “and the move against the lobbyists came at a very tough time for them.”