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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Back From the Dead

By late spring of 2007, John McCain's campaign was adrift, if not sinking. Then the candidate found a new narrative: the comeback.

This is part two of a seven-part in-depth look behind the scenes of the campaign, consisting of exclusive behind-the-scenes reporting from the McCain and Obama camps assembled by a special team of reporters who were granted year-long access on the condition that none of their findings appear until after Election Day.

Like a lot of Americans, Barack Obama says his favorite movie is "The Godfather." John McCain says his all-time favorite is "Viva Zapata!", a little-remembered, highly romanticized 1952 Marlon Brando biopic. The hero of the movie is Emiliano Zapata, the leader of a (briefly) successful peasant revolt in Mexico in the early 1900s. McCain loves the idea of a budget-class, guerrilla-style war against the corrupt establishment. He never got over being nostalgic about his 2000 insurgency against George W. Bush and the Republican Party leaders who had settled on George H.W. Bush's eldest son as heir apparent. Though himself the scion of a kind of warrior royalty—his father and grandfather had been admirals, and his mother came from a wealthy family—McCain was leery of the overprivileged (and hated being called a

"scion"). He would eventually come to embrace the younger Bush at the 2000 Republican convention, awkwardly hugging a rather startled-looking Bush around the midsection, as high as McCain's war-damaged arms could go. Privately, he told one of his closest aides that he strongly disliked Bush (the word the aide used was "detests").

At the time of the 2000 campaign, McCain had pictured himself as Luke Skywalker, going up against the Death Star. Rumbling along with his aides and a gaggle of mostly friendly reporters in a bus called the Straight Talk Express, he had relished the team spirit—the unit cohesion, in the language of his military past—and the teasing back-and-forth. Not long after the 2000 election, he had spoken of the heady time with a NEWSWEEK reporter over a standard-issue McCain breakfast (glazed doughnuts, coffee) in his Senate office. He was sitting at one end of his couch, the purplish melanoma scar down the left side of his face veiled in shadow. "Yeah, we were a band of brothers," he said, his voice low, his eyes shining.

The 2000 race had been a glorious adventure, a heroic Lost Cause. But the fact was that McCain had lost. In politics, insurgencies produce memories, not victories. Or so believed John Weaver, McCain's longtime close aide and the man who had first persuaded McCain to start thinking about a presidential run back in 1997. In numerous conversations throughout 2005 and 2006, Weaver, along with other McCain friends and advisers, gently underscored this reality. In their view, Republican nominating politics usually adhered to a rule, attributed variously to Napoleon and Frederick the Great, among others, that God favors big battalions. The key to securing the GOP nomination was to lock up the big money early, round up the best organizers, secure the shiniest endorsements and win the label "inevitable." That's how George W. Bush had beaten McCain and everyone else in 2000, and that's what John McCain needed to do for 2008.

McCain went along, grudgingly. He signed off in the fall of 2006 as his campaign rented sleek, corporate-looking offices in the Crystal City section of Arlington, Va., just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The crystal palace quickly filled with veterans of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign, many of whom had never before met McCain. For campaign boss, McCain shoved aside Rick Davis, his campaign manager from 2000, and appointed Terry Nelson, the political director for Bush-Cheney 2004. Boyish and soft-spoken, Nelson was an organization man. His approach was essentially Shock and Awe. By his own admission, he was not the sort of man you would hire for an insurgent-model candidacy of the kind McCain had run in 2000; his relevant experience was more appropriate to crushing that kind of campaign.

McCain was never comfortable playing the front runner. His comment when he first walked through headquarters was "It's awfully big." McCain was ill suited to be the establishment's man. He was suspect to the true believers on the right, the Rush Limbaugh "dittoheads" who regarded him as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). While the Republican right wanted to build a wall and keep out all the immigrants, McCain was trying to forge a compromise—with Ted Kennedy, no less. The party stalwarts had reason to be doubtful about McCain, who could be salty in his private denunciations. To a couple of his closest advisers he grumbled, "What the f––– would I want to lead this party for?"

The McCain campaign was supposed to be a lavish money machine; the draft budget was for more than $110 million. But the money did not come in. Most campaigns can expect 80 to 85 percent of donors to honor their pledges. In the McCain campaign, fewer than half did. "They come, they eat our food, they drink our liquor, they get their pictures taken," said McCain's aide Mark Salter. "But they don't send a check." Most candidates don't like doing the "ask," begging strangers for dollars. McCain virtually stopped making calls, and his chief money raiser, Carla Eudy, stopped asking him to do it. The campaign had boasted that it could raise $50 million in the all-important first quarter of 2007, an amount that might have intimidated the opposition. Instead McCain raised $13 million, less than either Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani.

Rick Davis, manager of the 2000 campaign, had not been exiled altogether; he had just been pushed aside, told to talk up the donors and handle what was called "the Mrs. McCain stuff"—seeing to it that Cindy McCain got whatever she needed. In the winter and spring of 2007, what Mrs. McCain got from Davis was an earful about how badly the campaign was going.

Cindy McCain had never loved politics. She understood that she had to be a "Navy wife" and put up with her husband's frequent long absences, but that didn't mean she liked to play the stoic. The daughter of a wealthy Arizona beer distributor, Cindy had been pampered by her father, and sent to school at the University of Southern California (USC, which, John liked to tease, really stands for University of Spoiled Children). On the campaign trail, her platinum blond hair pulled back in a sleek but severe style, she was a notably unsmiling presence. During the 2000 campaign, she had been reduced to tears when Republican dirty tricksters started putting out the word that she had been addicted to painkillers (true, but successfully kicked) and that McCain had fathered a love child with a black hooker (the smear artists used photos of the McCains' daughter Bridget, adopted from a Bangladeshi orphanage by Cindy). Cindy had blamed the Bush operation, and she bridled against "those Bush people" now surrounding her husband. Davis did not discourage her complaints.

The crystal palace, in the winter of 2007, turned into a snake pit. The Weaver-Nelson camp blamed Davis's people in fundraising for not drumming up enough money; the Davis camp blamed the Nelson-Weaver management for spending money they didn't have. Davis whispered to Cindy that headquarters was filled with résumé padders and mercenaries who weren't really there out of loyalty to John McCain. The candidate seemed irritated and slightly bewildered. Hearing that the communications shop had just attacked Mitt Romney again, he would ask in genuine bafflement, "Well, why did we do that?"

McCain was an inveterate cell-phoner. He was constantly on the phone pressing his staff and his advisers—present and former—for information. "What's going on?" he would begin the conversation. "What's happening?" As the discussion seemed to finally wind down, he would push, "What else?" McCain had no use for chains of command, and he used his cell phone to set up back channels into the campaign hierarchy. His calls to dissidents against the campaign leadership stirred up so much confusion and anxiety that his friend the former senator Phil Gramm finally advised him to stop.

The candidate looked unhappy and his performances were lackluster; the money was not rolling in; no one was talking about the "inevitability" of John McCain. By the late spring of 2007, McCain's campaign was at best adrift, if not sinking. The problem was not Nelson and Weaver or Davis, the new Bushians or the old McCainiacs. The problem was McCain.

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