After making a promising debut as their nominee, McCain has worried many Republicans by seeming to flounder during the past few weeks.
The campaign recently has been rattled 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.
It’s a troubling development, for when Obama likely finally captures the nomination and begins to consolidate his party, there’s yet another matter for Republicans to lose sleep over—the polling bump the Democrat is expected to receive.
Operatives and GOP officials around the country acknowledge 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.
“He spent over $5 million on TV,” said Mark Jefferson, Wisconsin's Republican party executive director, referring to Obama’s ad buy in the hotly contested Badger State primary in February. “McCain spent $180,000. And [Obama’s] got far more ground troops.”
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), an early McCain backer in the primary, called the Obama juggernaut “a formidable thing to deal with.”
“Clearly, Republicans are going to have to do a fantastic job of turnout programs and probably have to focus more on conservative Democrats and independents than on Republicans,” Burr said. Of the McCain operation, he said: “They’re doing more things right than they are wrong.”
Still, some see the McCain campaign as a pale imitation of the well-financed Bush campaigns, both models of precision and ruthless efficiency.
McCain’s effort inevitably suffers by comparison, since it’s easy to forget that the last Republican campaign was a presidential reelection model built over a four-year span. Like an older brother who was a star quarterback, Bush-Cheney ’04 was a state-of-the-art, $300-million wonder that was bound to make any successor look primitive by comparison.
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.
“The mechanics, the ground game costs money,” said Alex Gage, a political consultant who was the Bush-Cheney campaign’s micro-targeting guru from 2004. “And the mechanics are going to be a huge problem.”
It’s a problem drawing notice far beyond the Beltway.
“There is certainly no staff presence,” said Doug Badger, an Oregon GOP strategist who ran the Bush-Cheney campaign in the state four years ago. “I assume he’ll pretty much run an air campaign and rely on the party to do the grassroots. We had six paid Bush campaign staff on the ground on March 1st of ’04. Money is a big part of that.”
Justin Sayfie, a top fundraising bundler in Florida both for President Bush and his brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said McCain campaign's grassroots and finance organization in his state “is still a work in progress and doesn't yet match the formidable Bush-Cheney '04 organization in the state.”
Another prominent Republican who has worked at the highest levels of GOP politics concedes: “There’s no question that theMcCain effort lacks the sophistication of the last couple of cycles.”
Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to McCain, rejected the comparison, saying that the “nature of the campaign is different” since the last one was built by an incumbent president.
“But we believe that we’ll run as sophisticated a campaign as has ever been in the history of presidential politics,” Schmidt said. “There’s been refinements in techniques and technology that will allow us to target voters to get out the vote and we’ll take full advantage of all of them.”
Far from giving up on McCain, Bush-Cheney veterans remain convinced that his independence and war-hero’s stature make him the one Republican with a prayer of retaining the White House in the worst political environment since Watergate.
“For Oregon, he’s clearly the best candidate that Republicans could nominate,” observed Badger.
These Republicans are encouraged by McCain’s unique strengths as a candidate and by Obama’s distinctive vulnerabilities.
“The generic ballot isn’t favorable to Republicans but we’re buoyed by the fact that McCain has a lot of appeal to moderates and Reagan Democrats,” said Jefferson.
Burr contends that McCain has an appeal to swing voters unlike any other candidate in recent political history.
Moreover, they say, Obama is a candidate who faces real problems uniting the Democratic coalition, let alone bringing over swing voters.
In Florida alone, Sayfie notes, Obama faces three potentially skeptical voting blocs: Cuban-Americans, Jews and culturally conservative Democrats in the central and northern part of the state.
At the same time, few Republicans dismiss the juggernaut they’ll soon face and all recognize that McCain needs to execute better to be competitive in this environment. Habits ingrained in a once-insurgent campaign—one that only months ago had a staff one-eighth the size of Obama’s—will need to be broken.
After his near-meltdown last summer, McCain has kept counsel with a tight-knit and small inner circle – an insularity that causes chafing among some Republicans on the outside.
But he has taken some steps to bring on additional hands. Two veterans of the Bush-Cheney campaign, Nicolle Wallace and Matthew McDonald, have been recently brought on to lend a hand with communications.
And, even though there is resistance to it among some in McCain’s inner circle, strategist Mike Murphy may play a role beyond the informal conversations he has with the candidate now.
Schmidt said campaign officials “feel very good” about the political support from a unified Republican Party, plus some Democrats and independents; the fundraising plan; and the structure they’re building for turning out the vote.
“We are pleased with where we are in the race,” Schmidt said. “We expect a close election. We expect that whoever the Democratic nominee is, they’ll bump up in the polls, we’ll go down. And then we’ll begin to close the gap again by the time we get to the conventions [in late summer]. There is a long way to go in this race, and we’ll compete hard.”
Schmidt also gave a preview of what Republicans believe will be their ace in the hole -- the tough campaign McCain would run against Obama, calling the first-term senator’s foreign policy “reckless” and “dangerous,” and charging that he “is gifted with flowery rhetoric, but devoid of the record of action that’s necessary to change America in the right direction.”
McCain officials also believe the lobbying brouhaha will pass quickly.
"Reality matters," Schmidt said. "Senator McCain has the most restrictive policy in the history of presidential campaigns when it comes to lobbyists working on the campaign."
Much of the stress on the McCain campaign stems from the fact that it had to blossom almost overnight from a one-state-at-a-time crusade to a national campaign – a daunting exercise under even the best of conditions.
Beyond reassuring hard-right conservatives that they should pour their sweat into the campaign, McCain now must convince a broad swath of potential donors and allies that he is prepared and resilient enough to have a reasonable chance of winning on Nov. 4.
“The challenge of the campaign is to make sure that the American people know who John McCain is from A to Z—that they understand the strength of his character, the depth of his experience, his readiness, his preparedness, his courage,” Schmidt said. “Most Americans aren’t staring at the cable news networks, with three TVs in their living room or their office.”
Such optimism aside, Obama’s organizational strength remains a daunting prospect for the beleaguered Republicans. Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster in Colorado, notes that 10,000 Democrats showed up last weekend for a mostly ceremonial state convention.
“They usually don’t get more than two or three thousand,” Ciruli said. “Whether he can get them out at the precinct by precinct level is to be determined, but he’s got boots on the ground here. There are literally thousands and thousands of people who are prepared to work for him.”
Still, some Republicans note in key states the combination of McCain’s independent streak and the fissures in the Democratic party made plain during the primary will compensate for the GOP malaise and lack of enthusiasm for their nominee.
“McCain will run very well among independents here,” predicts Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire GOP strategist. “It’s harder for Democrats to make McCain seem like Bush.”