Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Anatomy of a comeback: How McCain pulled it off

By Elisabeth Bumiller and David D. Kirkpatrick

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, shares a laugh with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., right, on McCain's campaign charter plane shortly after landing Tuesday in San Diego.
On a Friday morning last July, Sen. John McCain packed a carry-on bag, boarded a cheap flight out of Baltimore and traveled alone to New Hampshire.

His campaign had just burned through $24 million and had nearly gone broke. His sunny comments about progress in Iraq had made him a target of derision. His calls for loosening immigration rules had outraged grass-roots conservatives.

So when McCain spoke at a campaign event in Concord that afternoon, he might have been the only one in the room who thought he could salvage his candidacy. "Everybody came that day to see the dead man walk," recalled Fergus Cullen, the chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

The Arizona senator's victories on Tuesday night, which cemented his status as his party's front-runner, were part of one of the most remarkable resurrection stories in recent American politics. How it happened has as much to do with events beyond McCain's control — the success of the troop buildup he supported in Iraq, Rudy Giuliani's decision not to contest New Hampshire — as it does with the stubbornness of McCain, a former prisoner of war, to stick it out.

But McCain was also helped by factors that defied much of the conventional wisdom. His support for broadening access to citizenship rallied Hispanic Republicans pivotal to his success in Florida. His decision to talk about how moved he was when one of his North Vietnamese captors drew a cross in the sand for him at Christmas helped him win over many conservative Christians in South Carolina even as he was pilloried by national evangelical leaders and talk-show hosts.

Focus: New Hampshire

A critical factor was his campaign's decision to pour almost all of its scarce resources into trying to make an early splash in New Hampshire, a small state that fit McCain's budget and his style of campaigning in intimate town-hall meetings.

Finally, McCain's campaign could not have recovered without a last-ditch $3 million loan last fall, when the candidate, who is 71, put up as collateral his campaign mailing list, the principal asset of his political future, and took out a life-insurance policy to assure the bankers that they would be paid, even if he died.

McCain officially kicked off his campaign on April 25 last year, when he announced his candidacy to an often listless crowd in Portsmouth, N.H., then repeated his remarks later to a gathering pelted by cold rain in Manchester.

Although he had expected to raise $100 million by the end of 2007, his positions on the war and immigration turned off the small donors who had been his mainstay in his 2000 presidential race. McCain had also alienated many potential big donors — particularly those in the lobbying, telecommunications and military industries — with various legislative crusades.

At the same time, his campaign was spending freely. He had 150 people on his payroll and the highest-paid staff of any campaign of either party.

Changing tactics

The troubles exploded on July 10, when the campaign announced, at the very moment that McCain stood on the Senate floor opposing a withdrawal from Iraq, that his top two political aides, John Weaver and Terry Nelson, were departing. Speculation raced through both parties that McCain would soon withdraw from the race.

But three days later, McCain got off a Southwest Airlines flight in Manchester and began the long climb back up.

The first decision was to jettison the planned 30-state campaign — McCain could not afford it, anyway — and focus almost solely on New Hampshire, where he had upset George W. Bush in the 2000 primary.

"He said, 'I know how to campaign here in New Hampshire, this state is tailor-made for me, I'll live off the land,' " recalled Steve Duprey, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman and a top McCain supporter.

As McCain traveled in Duprey's Suburban to banter and argue with voters in small gatherings, Rick Davis, the new campaign manager, brought costs under control, if only because there was no money and no other choice. Davis and other senior advisers worked without salaries, as they do to this day.

A turning point came in a debate in Durham, N.H., on Sept. 5, when McCain took Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and one of his Republican rivals, to task for saying the "surge" strategy in Iraq was "apparently" working.

"It is working," McCain said, in a sharp response that drew largely good reviews and energized his campaign. "No, not 'apparently.' It's working."

A week later, McCain was on what his campaign billed as a "No Surrender" Iowa bus tour. The candidate packed a bus with former fellow prisoners of war from Vietnam and newly minted veterans from Iraq and stopped at VFW posts and American Legion halls across Iowa to argue that the strategy in Iraq was a success. The campaign became convinced that even those voters who disagreed with McCain took notice.

"He was willing to stake his political fortune," said Michael DuHaime, a top adviser to the Giuliani campaign. "People respect that."

Front-runner fades

But the campaign, which could scarcely afford the bus, was being dramatically outspent by Romney and Giuliani. It was able to broadcast only one New Hampshire TV commercial, made at cost by McCain's media consultant, but campaign advisers said it nonetheless nudged McCain's poll numbers upward.

By November, polls showed the public began to feel less negative about Iraq, where violence had declined. McCain's early support for increasing troop levels began to look prescient. At the same time, his closest rival for the nomination, Giuliani, began to fade after a series of critical stories about his years as mayor of New York City, and soon decided to pull out of New Hampshire entirely.

"The rise of McCain is literally tied to the decline of Giuliani," said Andrew Kohut, a pollster and the president of the Pew Research Center.

The $3 million loan kept the campaign alive into December, when it became clear that Fred Thompson, another Republican rival, was going nowhere. At the same time, a TV commercial that ran in late December about the cross in the sand, titled "My Christmas Story," seemed to be reaching evangelicals in South Carolina.

"In 2000, in spite of the urging of several of us, Senator McCain was reluctant to speak about how faith got him through his POW experience," said Gary Bauer, a prominent Christian conservative who became one of the few to endorse him eight years ago.

"In this campaign, he has been much more willing to show more of his own heart and his relationship with God, and I think that has contributed to the fact that essentially the evangelical vote is being divided three ways," among McCain, Romney and Mike Huckabee, a minister before he became Arkansas' governor, Bauer said.

By Jan. 3, when Huckabee was the surprise winner in the Iowa caucuses, McCain's advisers were jubilant that the victory had weakened Romney, then McCain's most serious competitor.

"Huckabee chipping Romney in Iowa was an enormous event for the campaign," said Steve Schmidt, one of McCain's senior advisers.

Pulling ahead

McCain's New Hampshire victory created the momentum that he and his advisers had long hoped for. The win in South Carolina followed, not least because McCain had in place a "truth squad" of establishment Republicans to repel smear tactics that had derailed his primary campaign there in 2000.

Last week, propelled once again by momentum and money that was at last rolling in, McCain managed to win Florida with big support from Cuban-Americans, a critical voting bloc. It was no accident that his first appearance in the state after his South Carolina victory was at a restaurant in Little Havana, where he was introduced only in Spanish by a crucial supporter, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Miami. At the same time, Giuliani, who had spent millions of dollars and weeks in the state, was in free fall, and ultimately lost the primary.

This week, as McCain grew more confident of winning, the maverick who had long defied and exasperated his party began promoting himself as a true conservative who could unify Republicans for the fight in November.

"The party always comes together after we have the nominee," McCain said after he touched down on Tuesday in Phoenix to watch election returns. "That's a legacy handed down to us from Ronald Reagan."

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