Since effectively capturing the Republican nomination when Mitt Romney dropped out of the race on February 7, John McCain has held just one public campaign event on a weekend.
Instead, after workweeks full of fundraisers, town hall meetings and interviews, McCain has been, in campaign parlance, “down” on nearly every Saturday or Sunday for 20 weeks, largely sequestered away from the news media.
He’s usually spending time with family, friends and campaign advisers at residences in Arlington, Va., Phoenix or vacation homes near Sedona, Arizona, and San Diego.
That isn't to say McCain is kicking back and relaxing every weekend.
He’s hosted reporters and donors on separate occasions at his Arizona cabin, done a guest turn on Saturday Night Live and visited troops in both Iraq and at Walter Reed hospital.
Yet aside from an April rally on the steps of the courthouse in Prescott, Arizona, McCain has done little to capture media attention on weekends for nearly five months.
McCain aides say that they made a conscious decision after it became clear that they had won the nomination to use weekends primarily to return their candidate to his preferred surroundings in Arizona and to have him rest, bone up on policy, and meet privately with aides, advisers, contributors and other prominent officials.
And, they contend, there was little chance anyway of getting much exposure on the weekends in the face of the other contest that dominated the news in recent months.
“For a huge part of that time there was a Democratic primary going on,” notes spokesman Brian Rogers. “And we felt like we could get done what we needed to do [publicly] during the week.”
Another McCain aide dismissed the weekend downtime decision as “an insider thing.”
“I don’t think [voters] are going to be logging the hours,” the aide said.
McCain officials note that he’ll campaign on weekends for much of the summer and point to a speech he’s giving Saturday in Washington to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and a fundraiser in Kentucky later that day.
When informed of McCain’s absence of public weekend campaign events, Barack Obama spokesman Bill Burton responded by sending a list of all the appearances his candidate had made on weekends in June alone (seven, including this coming weekend).
McCain’s habit of weekends off is recognized by his small band of beat reporters, who are pleased by their good fortune but nevertheless find it puzzling.
Yet for insiders who follow the campaign closely, his streak has become increasingly tough to overlook.
As with so many issues surrounding his bid, McCain’s schedule is a sensitive topic because it is unavoidably suffused with the looming question of his age.
In trying to answer skeptics who ask whether a 72-year-old has the vigor to hold the presidency, McCain points to his indisputably packed calendar—on weekdays, that is.
"Watch me campaign," he said in April, when asked about the matter at a conference of media executives in Washington. "Come on the bus again, my friends, all of you."
Yet at the same time, his aides don’t want to wear him out and risk raising fears about his age by pushing him so much so that he gets sick.
Last month, campaign staffers at his headquarters sought to give him an entire Friday free of public events, citing a cold as the reasoning for scrapping the day’s schedule. But when McCain got wind of the plan, he rebelled and forced his aides to schedule a news conference.
Political veterans said McCain’s decision to forgo stumping on the weekends had both merits and flaws.
“This statistic will generate further questions about how well McCain has used the gift of three-and-a-half months this spring when he was clearly the GOP choice, while Obama and [Hillary] Clinton were still sluging it out,” said University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato. “Judging by the polls, McCain's critics have a point when they say he could have done a lot more to frame the election. At the same time, I think that point is exaggerated because the atmospherics are so bad for any Republican right now. McCain could have exhausted himself and still not had much to show for it.”
And Sabato recalled that when Ronald Reagan ran at 69 in 1980 he was “carefully paced.”
Ed Rollins, who ran Reagan’s 1984 re-election, noted that they rested the incumbent and didn’t overload his schedule.
“We didn’t do 10 events a day – we did two or three,” said Rollins.
But Rollins said McCain had missed an opportunity by not getting on the trail on weekends since February.
First, he pointed out, it’s easier to draw a larger crowd when people aren’t at work.
And, despite the historic Democratic primary, he said McCain could have made a splash by going into less-populated areas.
“You’ve got to think beyond big news cycles and big media outlets,” he said. “The smaller market is where he [would have been] a big show.”
Given the lack of intensity of support for McCain in the Republican base, Rollins said weekends could have been an optimal time “to rejuvenate them.”
But Scott Reed, who helmed Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign, argued that the McCain campaign was smart to recognize that a presidential run is a marathon, not a sprint.
“It does no good to run the guy into the dirt,” Reed said. “He’s already faced with the age and health issue and the last thing they need to do is have him catch a cold.”
Heading into a compressed general election season, they need a candidate at his freshest.
“The worst thing they can do for McCain is run him ragged,” Reed said.