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They kept McCain afloat

Last summer, a small team of aides rallied around the failing candidate and steadily rebuilt his campaign.

March 07, 2008|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

In the second week of July 2007, a pall settled over the half-empty headquarters of John McCain in an Arlington, Va., skyscraper. The campaign was nearly broke. The top two officials had resigned. Two-thirds of the staff had been fired or left, and those who remained worried the campaign might never recover.

With headlines predicting the end, a small band of loyalists coalesced around McCain.

The new campaign manager, Rick Davis, was on the phone with donors in every state, asking them to hang on. Mark Salter, McCain's aide of nearly two decades, walked from desk to desk at headquarters persuading core staffers not to bolt.

Strategist Charles Black, McCain's longtime friend and a veteran of every Republican presidential campaign since Ronald Reagan's 1976 bid, dropped in to remind the staff that Reagan had survived a similar implosion.

From California, consultant Steve Schmidt was on the phone with McCain, getting him focused on the path ahead. Media advisor Mark McKinnon, watching from Austin, Texas, as the team he'd assembled collapsed, called in to say, "I'm still here."

Toward the end of the week, Davis gathered the remaining staffers in an empty room. Some of them sat on boxes filled with McCain signs. The candidate thanked them for staying. His words caught in his throat when he paid tribute to Salter, who was painfully close to the departed advisors but bound to McCain with brother-like loyalty. The Arizona senator tried out a now-familiar laugh line -- "In the words of Chairman Mao, it's always darkest before it's totally black."

Then McCain, his son Jimmy and Salter headed to New Hampshire to face dozens of reporters. "They're really coming up to see if you're going to get out of the race," Salter told McCain, to buck him up. "Just keep the schedule. Just go do your thing."

The 'Sedona five'

The journey from that moment to capturing the Republican nomination Tuesday night was propelled by many factors beyond McCain's control. McKinnon said it was like drawing to an inside straight over and over.

The Iraq troop "surge," which McCain had advocated, gained support. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee emerged as a serious candidate and beat former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Iowa. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani essentially pulled out of New Hampshire, clearing McCain's way. Romney abandoned South Carolina, helping McCain to victory there, which gave him the momentum to win Florida.

But before all that, McCain's comeback was largely engineered by a team that grew out of the summer collapse, who are jokingly called the "Sedona five" because of their strategy sessions at McCain's Arizona cabin.

Davis, a calm and efficient lobbyist who impressed everyone with his budgeting skills, manned the northern Virginia headquarters. Salter, 53, who in his younger days spent four years as an Iowa spiker laying railroad tracks before becoming McCain's speechwriter, was most often at McCain's side.

Black, a lobbyist who initially signed on as debate coach, was drafted onto the Straight Talk Express bus by McCain as his tactician and, at 60, as the "wise elder of the group." Schmidt, 37, a strategist who ran the 2004 Bush campaign war room, and McKinnon, a one-time songwriter who served as media strategist for President Bush's White House campaigns, parachuted in from their respective bases in California and Austin.

They stayed "because of the candidate -- with really very little prospect of winning," said McKinnon, 52. "For a lot of us, we wanted to stay just to help the old soldier get some of his medals back."

A second chance

They set modest goals in late summer. McCain was still sliding in the polls and getting buried by the press; his advisors told him to stay under the radar while Davis straightened out the finances.

Davis drafted a memo for donors showing how they would downsize the campaign's far-flung operations -- focusing on a serviceable finish in Iowa and a win in New Hampshire to accelerate the campaign to the early states of Michigan, South Carolina and Florida.

He and Black assured them, along with McCain's high-profile endorsers, that the campaign "didn't need that much money." Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, even Michigan, were not expensive media states. "Nothing was secret," said Davis, who is 50. "That gave them something to focus on."

For Davis, who had often been left on the sidelines of campaign strategy sessions by then-campaign manager Terry Nelson and consultant John Weaver, being elevated to the top job gave him a second chance to get McCain to the White House.

"I felt like we cheated history by not doing a good enough job getting [McCain] elected [in 2000]," Davis said. "I was dying for another crack at it."

To improve morale and communication, Davis moved the entire staff into one long room, dubbed "the pit," where the finance, communications and planning teams worked alongside one another.

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