WASHINGTON — Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander laid off nearly half his senior campaign staff Thursday as he became the first GOP presidential hopeful to suffer severe wounds from the George W. Bush juggernaut.
Alexander ordered the cuts as part of a plan to focus his dwindling resources on February's caucuses in Iowa, where aides said he will beef up staff and resources in a last-ditch effort to derail the Texas governor's campaign.
Steve Schmidt, Alexander's communications director and among those losing a job, tried to make the best of a bad situation. "We are making structural changes while there is still time," he said. "The campaign will be around through the fall."
Also being laid off are legal counsel Katherine Phillips; Schmidt's deputy, Jeff Macedo; and Brian Jones, head of research.
Schmidt, who will become a consultant to the campaign, said Alexander will, in effect, put all his eggs into Iowa. "That is our moment of ignition. If we do well, the money will come into the campaign, national poll numbers will rise and we will be in a position to compete in New Hampshire," which holds the first primary.
Other political operatives were not as optimistic. "If it's not a sign of death, it's surely a sign that the patient is about to head into cardiac arrest," said GOP pollster and strategist Tony Fabrizio, who worked for Bob Dole's 1996 campaign.
Alexander aides acknowledge that, in laying off four of the 10 staffers making $60,000 or more, the campaign could get caught in a vicious circle: With donors and elected officials moving en masse to Bush, Alexander will have an even harder time convincing prospective givers that he's a good investment.
Along with Alexander, candidates competing with Bush for dollars include former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole and former Vice President Dan Quayle. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has his own base of donors through his chairmanship of the Senate Commerce Committee. Such social-religious conservatives as Patrick J. Buchanan, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes have found financial backing through a different network.
Alexander, who ran third in 1996 in Iowa and New Hampshire, is known as a highly effective fund-raiser but has failed to meet his cash goals this year: During the first six months, he is expected to raise about a third of his $7-million target, operatives said.