McCain Drain

Here’s how his struggling campaign could recover.

John McCain’s second presidential campaign has never looked more like his first: tight on money and shooting the moon. The campaign raised $11.5 million for the second quarter, which was short of the $13 million the senator raised in the in the first three months of the year, and almost certainly far less than Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani each collected. McCain’s bigger problem is that he has only $2 million in the bank, and given the way his campaign has been spending money, that sum could be gone by the end of this sentence.

The campaign is doing what most major organizations do when they’re bleeding: laying people off and praying. The campaign will be shedding 50 of its paid staff. The campaign manager will be working without a salary for the next several months, and senior staffers are taking pay cuts. Campaigns are allowed one restructuring but rarely two. This is McCain’s second, and the proof that the first one was working was supposed to be a strong fund-raising quarter. McCain’s chief rivals decided to delay announcing their fund-raising numbers to let him bleed for a couple of news cycles. The deathwatches are starting.

Perhaps the pandering stories will stop now, a weary McCain aide suggested to me today. It’s hard to know which myth died faster in the GOP presidential race of 2008: 1) that John McCain was the GOP front-runner or 2) that he was pandering to the party’s base to win the nomination. McCain infuriated conservatives by fighting for his immigration bill, and he still had to watch it die. Twice. The campaign-finance bill bearing his name was largely overturned by the Supreme Court last week. As if to prove that bad news loves company, he is about to take his sixth trip to Iraq, another place where they’re having trouble meeting their benchmarks. The troop surge that he continues to passionately support is opposed by as much as 70 percent of the country. If McCain is a panderer, he may be the most ineffective one in the history of American politics.

The senator’s poll numbers have not plummeted the way his fund raising has, though the entrance of Fred Thompson has pushed him back in the pack, and the anemic fund-raising numbers will not help his standings. The political betting sites were down sharply on the news.

What was once a sprawling campaign that aides boasted would compete in every primary state is now shrinking its focus to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. The campaign began with an ambitious $100 million fund-raising target. Now the Straight Talk Express will be rolling through the primaries on fumes. Aides say McCain’s campaign will accept public matching funds, which they estimate will get them close to $6 million. They say that will be enough to get their message out.

So, how will the campaign try to recover? In the targeted states, McCain will hold even more town-hall-style political events, returning to the magical formula that worked for him in 2000. (Though this too was part of the first restructuring.) “We know that he’s the best retail politician in the field, and the commitment rate among people who’ve seen him or read about his town halls is very good,” says a top aide. “He draws the largest crowds, and he is always, always his best when he’s directly before voters.”

Is it going to work? His biggest fans hope the tough spot will release him a little and that he’ll return to being a happy warrior instead of seeming pissed off and burdened. There’s nothing in this bad fund-raising news that affects his ability to look presidential.

But he may have too much bad history with conservatives to overcome. Since McCain can’t suck up very well, he’s going to have to hope that people see their disagreements with him as evidence of his principle and grit. That hasn’t happened enough for him yet. It also means he’s going to have to wait for voters to fall in and out of love with Fred Thompson and give up their sustained flirtation with Giuliani. That’s going to take patience and inhuman endurance, since everyone is going to spend the next few months asking when McCain is going to fold up shop.

The best that can be said for McCain and his team is that they derive a perverse joy from long odds and uphill battles. “He knows how to do this,” said a top aide, “and he’s gonna fight like hell.”