McCain Seeks Out Spotlight

SAN FRANCISCO – The double-wide press bus is gone. Once-long waits to be patted down by TSA agents on frozen tarmacs have been reduced from minutes to moments. And the old JetBlue charter warhorse has been replaced by a sleeker and smaller plane where passengers can sometimes take whole rows to themselves.

Welcome to life on the campaign trail with Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain, an often news-free environment where even the signature Straight Talk Express is kept in dry dock some days.

One month into the interregnum between the primary and general election campaigns, McCain is spending much of his time raising money, often with multiple events each day. But at least once a day, he takes a break from the money chase to make himself available to a significantly reduced pack of reporters.

“I think it’s a two-edged sword,” McCain said aboard his new leather-appointed plane this week. “I think it’s nice to have [the GOP race] decided. But obviously the attention understandably is on a very close race, a hotly contested race for the nomination of their party.”

McCain adviser Steve Schmidt is less equivocal in his view about whether this period is a burden or blessing.

“If you gave every senior strategist on all these campaigns truth serum and asked if they would rather be us or them, every one of them would rather be us,” Schmidt boasts. “Sen. McCain’s numbers are moving his up, his approval numbers are rising, he’s drawing a lot of support from the other party, strong independent support and a unified Republican Party.”

Despite the intense focus on the epic battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, McCain’s camp is pleased with their level of visibility and has plans for remaining in the mix in the weeks ahead even as the next Democratic contests grow closer.

McCain will continue to give speeches on a number of topics, as he did twice this week, and on the days he’s not reading from prepared text, he’ll weigh in on the issues that are driving the Democratic race.

“We have tried to engage our opponents in a way to ensure that we are inside those stories,” says a McCain aide. “It conditions [reporters] to come to you for a response which helps you stay in the debate.”

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And Clinton and Obama, conscious of the political benefit in matching themselves against their Republican rival, are glad to return fire, as both did this week on McCain’s speech on the mortgage issue.

“Both Democratic candidates spend a fair amount of time focusing on Sen. McCain,’ Schmidt observes.

Beyond inserting themselves into the Democratic debate, Team McCain also has plans to shape the campaign narrative.

Next week, joined by his wife and mother, McCain will launch a trip billed as the “Service to America Tour,” which will take the Arizona senator from his family’s ancestral roots in Mississippi to his alma mater at Annapolis and to two of the stateside postings he had in Florida during his Navy days.

Each day will feature an event designed to drive a different theme drawn from McCain’s experience at each locale. To focus media attention on the otherwise make-news events he’ll do a round of morning show interviews, hit the cable television circuit, make a guest appearance on the David Letterman show and do some Sunday morning television programs.

The following week, McCain will pivot from his biography back to another favored topic, and try to get his cut of what is sure to drive the week’s discussion.

With Gen. David Petraeus scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill April 8, McCain will spend some rare time in senatorial mode, using his position on the Armed Services Committee to lend a measure of moral support o the Iraq commander.

And McCain will do his best to frame the political contours of Petraeus’s testimony with a speech the day before at a Veterans of Foreign Wars event in Kansas City. Much of McCain’s speech there will be about Iraq, according to an aide.

With less fundraising time scheduled during his biographical tour, McCain will use this week in the capital to raise cash. He’s got a high-dollar event lined up at Washington’s Willard Hotel on the night of Petraeus’s appearance before the Senate.

McCain will use the second week in April, when taxes come due, to focus on an economic message. He’ll utilize April 15 to tout his tax cut proposals and to contrast his plan with what he says are the Democrats’ plans to raise taxes.

The third week in April will bring what could be called McCain’s “different kind of Republican tour,” where he intends to visit places that don’t often get much attention from candidates, especially from his own party.

“There are parts of the country, from inner cities to rural areas that have been forgotten, left behind,” says Schmidt. “Sen. McCain will travel to these places, visit with the people, talk to them about new ideas to change the economic realities of these areas.”

McCain aides wouldn’t share the exact locales yet, but he’s likely to stop in areas with heavy African-American and Latino populations.

But for all his staff’s ingenuity, the reality at the moment is that McCain can’t command the daily news cycle in a way that he once could.

Since wrapping up the nomination, the traveling press corps assigned full-time to his campaign has dwindled to about 10 diehards, about half of whom are young off-air producers for the television networks and cable channels.

McCain’s strategy to stay in the news is simple -- and it just happens to be the same approach he’s taken to media relations in the decade he’s been involved in national politics:

Access, access, access.

Every day that he has a public schedule, McCain feeds the press beast, whether by giving a speech, holding a town hall meeting, conducting a press conference or just strolling back in his plane to take questions from his small band of regulars.

“This notion that because the Democratic race is unresolved he will not be covered for what he says or that what he says will not be part of the news cycle borders on the ridiculous,” scoffs Schmidt.

Schmidt has so far been proven right. While not drawing anywhere near the daily blanket coverage of Obama and Clinton, McCain has managed to remain in the news cycle—and even experienced a spike in his poll numbers in recent days as both Democrats have suffered through damaging stories.

Better yet, news organizations worried about balanced coverage have elevated largely newsless McCain events. Speeches that McCain delivered this week on the mortgage crisis and foreign policy offered few new ideas, but both received wall-to-wall cable news coverage and front-page treatment in some major newspapers.

“By virtue of being the de facto Republican nominee for president, he’s going to get a great deal of media attention,” is how Schmidt explains it.

Of course, not all of it has been favorable – the most memorable moment from McCain’s trip abroad last week, or at least the one replayed frequently on cable news, was when he either mixed up or conflated Sunni and Shia extremists. And his lack of ideas on how to address the concerns of worried homeowners led much of the coverage to be centered on his tough medicine approach to irresponsible buyers.

But for McCain, it’s the best kind of media attention -- the free kind.

A good example came Friday, when he launched his first ad of the general election, a spot recounting his POW experience and setting the stage for next week’s this-is-our-life journey. Though it is only airing in relatively inexpensive New Mexico, the ad drew widespread media attention, especially on the video-hungry cable networks.

For McCain, such little victories are part not only of a short-term effort to avoid being eclipsed by the Democratic combatants, but also of a long-term strategic imperative. With only a fraction of the money that his eventual opponent will have, the Republican must rely upon what he has called his media “base.”

“We have no expectation or intention to be able to compete dollar for dollar against either of these Democratic campaigns,” argues Schmidt. “But we don’t need to. We don’t got to raise the most, we got to raise enough.”