The McCain Decimation: The Inside Story: UPDATED

From a half dozen Republicans close to the campaign here is, best I can tell, what happened:

Republicans close to Sen. John McCain said today that McCain was under "enormous pressure" by friends and advisers outside the campaign to fire campaign manager Terry Nelson because these advisers felt that Nelson was incapable of containing campaign spending and refused to run a more efficient campaign.

These Republicans also said that Nelson first considered resigning ten days ago when the campaign reported a disappointing second quarter campaign tally and was left with only $2M on hand. At the time, McCain told an intermediary that he would not accept Nelson's resignation and wanted him to stay. Other Republicans advised Nelson to tough it out. Nelson spent the next few days cutting the campaign payroll, laying off many hands that he had hired.

In the intervening period, McCain suggested that Rick Davis, who was McCain's manager in 2000, officially move to a position of co-equal power with Nelson. That crossed a "line in the sand" for chief strategist John Weaver, who has sparred with Davis over campaign strategy and tactics.

Some Republicans close to the campaign say that Davis pushed McCain to fire Nelson.
McCain's refusal to give Nelson absolute authority over the campaign "cost McCain both Weaver and Salter," one source close to the campaign said.

Salter will remain an adviser and help with speechwriting, but he is no longer part of the campaign and won't be paid for his work. At present, he will not return to McCain's Senate office, where he served as chief of staff. In a brief interview, Salter declined to comment on Nelson except to say that "he was not fired." He also said that a new strategist would be hired shortly. Another campaign aide said that Salter remains in McCain's good graces and will occasionally join the candidate on the road.

Sources said that Nelson's position as campaign manager was precariously positioned from the start because McCain did not envision or endorse a campaign structure that would have given Nelson absolute authority over messaging, finance and strategy.

Republicans directly familiar with the negotiations to bring Nelson aboard said that McCain promised Nelson that no one but him would have the ultimate say in making and executing campaign decisions. But McCain did not follow through on those promises, these Republicans said. That McCain had collected too many cooks for the kitchen long worried McCain's allies. Nelson, Weaver, counselor Salter and former manager Davis are all forceful personalities.

Long-time advisers to McCain were free to counsel the candidate and frequently told the press about strategy disagreements. In the first quarter, the campaign spent money, at times, with McCain's approval and not Nelson's.

After the end of the first quarter, Nelson wrestled responsibility for fundraising away from long-time McCain aide Carla Eudy, but he was unable to contain spending. And Nelson was furious, campaign sources said, when several McCain advisers were quoted as saying that McCain would need to raise $20M in the second quarter in order to stay viable.

Republicans outside the campaign said that Nelson's campaign strategy was based on an assumption that the campaign would raise $100M and would dominate the Republican field. He began to build field organizations in early states that matched the expensive operations opened by candidates with more money, like ex-MA Gov. Mitt Romney. McCain has raised a fourth of that tally so far and has spent more than $23M.

Nelson decided last night to resign, a campaign official said.

"Terry and John are smart, effective, loyal and hard-working. Obviously, everyone is disappointed with the situation," said Ken Mehlman, the former party chairman. "But at the same time, anyone who worked with those guys understands how effective and hard-working they are."

Davis, who had been serving as the campaign's chief executive officer, will become the interim campaign manager.

Weaver was responsible for guiding McCain through the perilous precincts of Republican party politics. He grew personally close to McCain through the 2000 presidential campaign and in the wilderness years of the early Bush presidency, advised McCain to ask Nelson to be the manager on his 2008 race.

Nelson has served as political director for the Bush-Cheney re-election and nurtured a generation of Republican talent. Many remain on the campaign, including communications director Brian Jones and his deputy, Danny Diaz.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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