The rollout of general election campaign in the weeks since he became the de facto Republican nominee has not exactly been a textbook exercise in positive messaging.
McCain was accused of having a romantic relationship with a lobbyist by the New York Times (he vehemently denied it). The DNC filed a complaint against McCain with the Federal Election Commission questioning whether he is violating the spending limits imposed on a campaign that takes public funds.
continued to nip at McCain's heels, postponing a full pivot to the November race. And, just last week, McCain had to spend part of two days denouncing ostensible allies and apologizing to for the use of his middle name.
Oh - and Obama andraised more than $130 million combined in the first two months of the year.
At this point in the campaign, nothing seems to alarm Republicans more than the incessant sound of ringing cash registers coming from the other party. The jaw-dropping fundraising by Democrats - and Obama in particular - is leading Republican officials both in and out of McCain's campaign to think that they'll never be able to match the war chests of their likely rivals. And this from a party that traditionally has pummeled Democrats when it comes to fundraising.
Obama hasn't disclosed yet what he raised in February, but it will likely be over $50 million. He brought in $36 million in January. Clinton raised $35 million in February, a month in which she lost 11 straight contests.
By contrast, McCain raised $12 million in January, when he was still locked in a hotly-contested GOP primary, and is believed to have raised about the same last month.
Asked by reporters at a campaign stop here how much he brought in last month, McCain said he was only certain of one thing.
"I can assure you it's not nearly the amount raised by Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton," he said with a chuckle. "We've got a ways to go to catch up with them."
Obama's staggering sum is made all the more frightening for Republicans because much of it came over the internet in small sums - support that not only underscores Obama's organic appeal but that also signals an ability to raise more money from a donor pool that now totals over one-million individuals. It's the sort of cash-raising prowess that may dissuade Obama from abiding by the fundraising constraints that come with taking public funds - restraints he once said he would accept. McCain says he will opt for public financing.
It's a show of strength that is spurring Republican strategists to reach for the sort of talking points that pop up whenever a candidate is going run at a financial disadvantage. Namely, those that minimize the importance of money.
"We don't expect we'll be able to compete dollar for dollar," said Charlie Black, a top McCain adviser and presidential campaign veteran. "But between McCain and the RNC, we'll raise as much as we can."
There is, Black argued, "a point of diminishing returns" for a candidate with cash to burn.
"The DNC plus the Kerry campaign outspent Bush and the RNC when Bush was the sitting president," he noted. "So money isn't the only thing."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry echoed Black, recalling a self-funding rival he easily dispatched in 2002.
"There's a point in time where money is not what matters, ideas are what matters," Perry said, speaking after a McCain event near Austin. "And I think that's the big difference - [examining] John McCain and what he believes in versus Obama and his socialist agenda will be a very eye-opening moment for Amercans."
Still, there are few more prized assets in politics than a distinct fundraising advantage. It would enable Obama (or Clinton, for that matter) to compete in more states, with the resources for more ads, more mail and more staff. And such an effort to broaden the map would result in McCain having to expend defensive capital on terrain Republicans haven't had to worry about in recent years.
"They've got a significant fundraising advantage," conceded Tucker Eskew, an unaligned Republican strategist who worked on the Bush campaign in 2000. "No question, this is a tough climate," he said, alluding to the low ratings of the incumbent and the party label.
But McCain is a "tough customer," Eskew added and, given his track record, can probably get away more than most presidential hopefuls "with a scrappier operation."
McCain backers hope to counter bulging Democratic coffers by playing exactly to those strengths. Though it's more difficult in the general election, strategists want to try to keep a steady slate of his beloved town hall meetings, allowing for regular voter interaction.
And McCain will also endeavor to earn as much media attention as possible by keeping up his free-and-easy style with reporters. He'll continue to mingle both on his bus and also on his plane - always on the record.
And then there are events like the one he held Sunday at his cabin amid the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona. He and his wife, Cindy, hosted dozens of national reporters at their family get-away, the candidate personally manning the grill and bantering with reporters in between doling out racks of ribs. This, for what it was worth, was also on the record.
Earned media opportunities aside, the McCain campaign also will lean on the RNC to help supplement their messaging against and to augment their voter contact effort. The committee enjoys a sizable fundraising advantage over its Democratic counterpart, and much of that money will go toward helping McCain onceis out of the race. Republican congressional committees, it should be noted, face a wide fundraising gap with their Democratic counterparts and might also want RNC help.
Others in McCain's orbit predict that their fundraising disparity will ease some once Huckabee finally quits and the Arizonan is the official nominee
The Money Race
Check out January tallies for Republicans and Democrats including how much they've raised and spent since the campaign began.
"We've got to win our nomination to get our fundraising going," said Phil Gramm, a former Texas senator and top McCain backer.
One bright spot, he said, is that while many high-dollar Democratic donors have already weighed in with a check, many of the Republican financiers who underwrote President Bush's two campaigns have yet to fully engage.
"We have a larger pool [of top donors] to go to than they do," he said.
McCain's campaign seems to be steering a course somewhere between a clear-eyed recognition of reality and an effort to develop effective spin. In any event, aides recognize that the money gap won't make steering through the already-stiff headwinds of this cycle any easier.
"We're going to treat as McCain as the underdog," Black said. "He usually is at his best when he runs as the underdog."
By Jonathan Martin