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Monday, August 11, 2008

In Loose Style, McCain Leads a Camp Divided

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press
Senator John McCain with Steve Schmidt, left, a top adviser known for imposing discipline.

Published: August 9, 2008

WASHINGTON — Senator John McCain is so quick to pick up his gold-colored cellphone to solicit advice — from senators, campaign consultants, even the stray former deputy press secretary — that aides, concerned about his tendency to adopt the last opinion he has heard, have tried to cut back on the time he has to make calls.

Mr. McCain is known to sign off on big campaign decisions and then to march off his own reservation. Two weeks ago, he publicly disagreed with his own spokeswoman, Jill Hazelbaker, after she used a line of attack against Senator Barack Obama that he had approved after careful strategizing within his campaign. Ms. Hazelbaker raced out of the Virginia campaign headquarters and refused to take Mr. McCain’s calls of apology, aides said, and a plan to have Republican members of Congress use the same critical line about Mr. Obama’s foreign trip fell apart.

Out of his hearing, Mr. McCain is called the White Tornado by some people who have worked for him over the years. Throughout his presidential campaign, he has been the overseer of a kingdom of dissenting camps, unclear lines of command and an unsettled atmosphere that keeps aides constantly on edge.

Even now, after a shake-up that aides said had brought an unusual degree of order to Mr. McCain’s disorderly world in the last month, two of his pollsters are at odds over parts of the campaign’s message, while past and current aides have been trading snippy exchanges debating the wisdom of attack advertisements he has aimed at Mr. Obama.

In an interview, Mr. McCain said he believed an organization consisting of sometimes colliding centers of power made sure that a candidate, or a president, reached fully informed decisions. “You’ve got to have competing opinions,” he said.

“I think a certain amount of tension is very healthy, and a certain amount of different views,” he said. “Because of the bubble that a president is in, and the bubble that a candidate is in, sometimes you find out afterwards something that — ‘Oh boy, I wish I had heard thus and such and so and so.’ So I appreciate and want some of the tension; I don’t want too much of it, obviously, because we have to have certain efficiencies. But I think there is a balance there.”

Mr. McCain hungers for information. He can regularly be seen reading newspapers from cover to cover, and aides say he embraces the briefing books given to him each night. His aides say he is especially studious when it comes to economic issues, an area in which he has admitted weakness. A former fighter pilot, Mr. McCain preaches the need to improvise under pressure, subscribing to the military maxim that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. The bursts of temper fellow senators have endured are rarely directed at his underlings. Indeed Mr. McCain has a history of being surrounded by people who are intensely loyal to him — and remain so even after being pushed off his ship.

But if Mr. McCain’s management style has kept him well informed and flexible, its drawbacks have been especially evident in the many often turbulent months since he began his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. It offers a contrast to the more rigidly controlled and nearly corporate management style that has marked the campaign of Mr. Obama, his Democratic counterpart. If anything, it recalls the freewheeling ways of the last Republican senator to win his party’s presidential nomination, Bob Dole in 1996.

Mr. McCain’s style contains contradictions, veering between a shoot-from-the-hip tendency and assertions of damn-the-consequences authenticity on the one hand and a grudging acceptance on the other of the need to give in to the discipline of programmed politics. While he avidly seeks advice and contrary opinions, he routinely resists basic political counseling, such as when aides pleaded with him not to campaign sitting on a horseshoe-shaped couch in the back of his bus because they feared it made him look like an old man rumbling around the country in an R.V. He refused.

His management of his campaign offers a glimpse of how he might run the White House. He would, it appears, be a president who is intensely interested in issues (particularly foreign affairs) and open to conflicting opinions, but also impetuous at times and tolerant of the kind of internal churning that can impede orderly decision-making and keep aides on edge.

While President Bush has been criticized for being too insular and too slow to adapt to changing circumstances, Mr. McCain’s leadership of his campaign suggests a less hierarchical, more free-form style, much closer to that of President Bill Clinton.

For now, Mr. McCain’s executive style looms as a potential obstacle to his hopes of getting to the White House. His campaign has been rocked by personnel changes and often well-publicized differences. And for all the efforts to maintain discipline, he continues to be plagued by misstatements and apparent gaffes as he at times bucks what his own campaign is trying to do. After his campaign spent days mocking Mr. Obama for suggesting that proper tire pressure was one way of conserving fuel, Mr. McCain undercut the message, stating : “Senator Obama a couple of days ago said that we ought to all inflate our tires, and I don’t disagree with that. The American Automobile Association strongly recommends it.”


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