McCain running tighter, less rambling campaign
August 14, 2008
ASPEN ” For months, John McCain’s presidential campaign was a near-constant swirl of free-ranging chats with voters, garrulous sessions with reporters and quips from the candidate that often had little to do with the day’s planned message.
With a dozen weeks to go, McCain’s campaign has notably limited his exposure to national reporters and even voters, devoting more time to private fundraisers, interviews with local journalists and events designed for TV cameras.
This week, for example, McCain conducted only one large “town hall” event and one full news conference, but at least seven fundraisers and a string of interviews with reporters mostly from local newspapers, radio and TV stations.
From here on, “you’ll see a campaign that is better at staying on message,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close associate who probably travels with McCain more than anyone outside his staff and family.
McCain will still hold town hall forums and take questions from national journalists, Graham said in an interview aboard the campaign plane Thursday. However, he said, “our problem is to keep these interactions to a manageable point.”
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McCain’s advisers have long struggled for ways to keep him more disciplined and focused without entirely sacrificing his rambling talks with reporters on his bus and voters in gyms and meeting halls. McCain thrives on such activities, and they often show an appealing, impish side.
But they also subject him to questions of all sorts, making it impossible to focus on a chosen message. Worse, they sometimes prompt McCain to ponder the questions with a long, puzzled expression ” as he did last month when a Los Angeles Times reporter asked about insurance coverage for Viagra and birth control ” that opponents love to distribute on the Internet.
In response, the campaign recently stopped opening the “Straight Talk Express” bus to the roughly two dozen journalists who travel with him regularly. McCain still calls on them in news conferences, as he did on Wednesday, but those, too, have become less frequent.
“It’s not like it used to be,” Graham acknowledged. “But what we’re learning is that once you become the nominee, every word is seized upon,” and the campaign spends valuable time trying to extinguish brush fires.
Now, Graham said, “his day is more structured, focused on getting the message out.”
Advisers also appear to be slowing McCain down a bit and giving him some rest, especially this week, when many Americans are distracted by the Olympic Games and summer vacations. Democratic opponent Barack Obama is vacationing in Hawaii, further reducing the pressure on McCain to fight for attention.
On Monday, McCain spoke to the traveling media about Russia, but took no questions. His largest event was before about 100 manufacturing employees in Pennsylvania, where he spoke for nine minutes and took questions for 15, ending ahead of schedule.
On Tuesday, he addressed more than 2,000 enthusiastic people at a town hall meeting in York, Pa., and rounded out the day with several one-on-one press interviews, two fundraisers and a few photo ops, including a visit to a high school football team practicing in Manheim, Pa.
On Wednesday, McCain held the week’s only full news conference, plus three fundraisers in Michigan. Thursday started a pronounced slowdown. After a noon fundraiser in Colorado, McCain held “a conversation” with the head of the nonprofit Aspen Institute, to be followed by two more fundraisers.
He was scheduled to have no public events Friday, when he will meet with top aides, and only one on Saturday: a televised forum on faith, in California, where Obama is to appear separately.
Campaign sources said McCain is likely to spend a few days next week huddled with advisers, possibly working on his vice presidential decision.
McCain spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace said the workload is not significantly lighter. “We have a full schedule,” she said.
But Graham said aides and friends are trying to pace McCain and the campaign. “What you have to realize is that this is a marathon,” he said, “not a sprint.”
Polls show a tight race between the McCain and Obama.
Graham said the retooled campaign mode “is kind of a consensus” rather than the work of one or two top advisers. “If someone didn’t intervene,” he said, “I think John would do a town hall meeting that would last for days.”
Graham said his advice has been, “John, don’t wear yourself out. Make sure your message resonates visually.”
That goal, he said, is behind McCain’s increased use of photo opportunities in which reporters and microphones are sometimes barred. At a breakfast diner in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., for example, McCain sat down Thursday with what the campaign called “four women facing everyday economic struggles.” But all reporters and microphones were hustled from the room before they began talking, so no one beyond the four women know what McCain said about their struggles.
That’s not a big problem, Graham said, contending that the campaign is doing much better with “visuals.”
“If you see John on an oil rig,” he said, “you know what that story is about.”
Referring to an infamous McCain speech whose setting was widely panned, Graham said: “We’ve come a long way from the New Orleans puke-green background, to a much crisper campaign.”