McCain Shakes Up McCain; A Slog Awaits

With only $2m left in his campaign bank account and a widespread perception that his candidacy is crashing, Sen. John McCain went all in today, saying through his top aides that he has decided to spend the rest of the year running as an insurgent-change agent who will take on shibboleths in his party and in Washington.

McCain, in Iraq for the sixth time since the outbreak of war, left it to campaign manager Terry Nelson to sketch the contours of what is a dramatically compacted fighting machine. In some ways, the picture Nelson described was grim and surprising.

Thought he wouldn't confirm it, a back of the envelope calculation suggests that McCain has spent $23M this year, more than any of his opponents. Later, Nelson said that the campaign may opt into the federal nomination financing system, which would ease the financial pressure somewhat for McCain in the primaries but could cut him off at the knees if he wins the nomination.

Campaign officials said nothing about the nature of McCain's campaign spending. It is likely that a multi-million debt from the first quarter has been retired, but no one would confirm that to me.

Aides did say that the campaign staff has been cut -- at least 30 full-time positions will be eliminated, according to a Republican with ties to the campaign.

Senior advisers like Nelson will work for reduced, or no pay. The campaign will cut ties with several consulting firms. Instead, McCain will focus all his resources on building superior ground organizations in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The salary cuts will help McCain fund television advertisements later in the year.

In addition to briefing reporters, Nelson and chief strategist John Weaver held several conference calls with major donors, friends and campaign allies. The mood of those calls was described by a McCain adviser as "more than hopeful."

Still, virtually every strategic assumption McCain brought to the campaign has been overturned by events. The financial elite of the party never forgave his departure from their cherished orthodoxies. The McCain campaign did not believe that immigration would empower the anti-McCain factions of the party. They expected Mitt Romney to fizzle, early,
and expended much effort to destroy his candidacy from the beginning. They did not believe that Rudy Giuliani would run. They did not believe that Fred Thompson would run. They may have misjudged the willingness of Republican voters to tolerate the situation in Iraq. Republican base voters might say that they favor McCain's position -- Bush's position -- but they don't seem to want to talk about it.

The immigration debate hurt fundraising, but so did the perception that McCain's campaign was floundering. The campaign has tried in vain to find metrics to demonstrate that McCain is in better shape than he appears -- noting correctly, for example, that Rudy Giuliani's lead has been trimmed by as much as 25 points in national polls -- but aside from a few outliers, Republicans just haven't bought into McCain's vision.

It will be hard to find a silver lining amid the news of a restructuring and such an astoundingly bare bank account, but here goes. I am not a political pathologist, and I cannot declare a candidate dead on the basis of perception. t

The fundamentals underlying McCain's campaign are as sound as his three rival's.
By this I mean that he remains popular with the Republican base (he does -- check out his fav-unfavs), he is a national celebrity of compelling substance, he debates well, he is a voracious candidate on the trail, he does indeed have solid organizations in the early states, his campaign brain trust is as smart as they come, the Republican race is extremely unstable, and its voters don't yet seem to be taking their duties seriously: they're still in the flavor of the month phase, which is right where you'd expect an unenthusiastic party to be.

A slog awaits his campaign. But the great thing about expectations is that the lower they are, the more you benefit if you exceed them. McCain might be able to win New Hampshire, for example, even if comes in second In Iowa.

I'll have more thoughts on this later.