WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain fired his campaign manager and chief strategist Tuesday, dissatisfied with lackluster fundraising and mixed messages coming from an unfocused leadership committee, a close friend and adviser told MSNBC.
McCain, R-Ariz., said in a statement that he had accepted campaign manager Terry Nelson’s and strategist John Weaver’s resignations with regret, and he told reporters later that they had not been fired in a major shake-up that reflected his campaign’s recent troubles.
But former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a longtime friend and trusted adviser to the campaign, told MSNBC that was exactly what happened.
“I think when John McCain watched the day-to-day operations of the campaign and saw that, in a two-year campaign you can’t spend as much money as we have been spending, you need to cut back, you need to make sure [that] instead of having two or three people giving you one good idea, maybe one person giving you that one good idea” would be better, Keating said in an interview with MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson.
“If there’s a mistake, fix it and move on,” said Keating, who said he had spoken with McCain earlier in the day.
Political director Rob Jesmer and deputy campaign manager Reed Galen followed Nelson, a veteran of President Bush’s successful 2004 re-election effort, and Weaver, a longtime aide who ran McCain’s failed 2000 presidential bid, out the door, officials said. Two officials said that Rick Davis, another longtime aide, would take over the campaign and that other changes also were likely.
Too little bang for the buck
Coming off the Senate floor Tuesday, McCain was swarmed by reporters seeking some straight talk about why the two top aides resigned. And after a few minutes of persistent questions about “why” and “shake-ups” and “trouble,” McCain pushed back.
McCain said repeatedly that he was “happy” with the campaign, adding, “We’re doing fine.”
“I will repeat again: I’m very happy with the campaign,” he said calmly. “We remain loyal and good friends. I appreciate all they’ve done for me in the past and all they will do for me in the future.”
But Keating — the only campaign official who was allowed to talk officially with the news media after the move was announced — made it clear that Nelson and Weaver had been asked to leave.
The problem was that the campaign was spending more money than it was taking in, and Nelson and Weaver were unable to address the shortfall, Keating said.
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Video: Analysis With front-runners like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney raising more money in just the second quarter than McCain has managed all year, “you better rein it in and figure out where you’re spending it wisely and where you’re spending it wrongly,” Keating said.
“It’s a smart thing to do, because it’s a very long campaign cycle, and that’s what he’s doing,” Keating added. “I think it’s a smart thing. I think it’s a wise thing, and now I think it will make for a stronger campaign.”
Keating said McCain was unconcerned that the move, the second major shake-up of his campaign in recent weeks, would make him look weak.
“Ultimately, the person who is the candidate is responsible for his campaign, but the mark of an executive — the mark of somebody who is in charge — is when you find problems, you address them,” he said.
Double trouble for struggling campaign
The shake-up comes just six months before the first voting in Iowa and as McCain, once considered the front-runner, seeks to regain some momentum with a diminishing list of options to lift his candidacy.
McCain’s fortunes soured considerably this year as he embraced Bush’s troop increase for the Iraq war, an unpopular conflict with the public but one supported by most Republicans, and a bipartisan immigration bill that has divided the Republican Party.
Over the past six months, his donors and supporters were turned off by what they viewed as McCain’s embrace of the policies of a lame-duck president with abysmal approval ratings. That caused McCain’s polling and fundraising to suffer.
The campaign said Mark Salter, a senior aide whom some consider McCain’s alter ego, would continue to advise him and the campaign without pay, an arrangement they worked out last week. Earlier, officials had said Salter would cease day-to-day activities with the campaign.
McCain said discussions were ongoing about Salter’s future role, adding, “He will remain actively involved in my campaign.”
McCain’s campaign in flux
Days ago, the candidate laid off dozens of staffers after lackluster fundraising and excessive spending left him with just $2 million.
McCain raised just $11.2 million in the second financial quarter of the year, which ended June 30. That was less than the $13.6 million he brought in during the year’s first three months when he came in third behind Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
But Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., a McCain supporter, told MSNBC that it was too early to count the McCain campaign out.
“I think it’s very early in a presidential race that will probably be unlike any that we’ve experienced in our lifetime, where voters aren’t yet focused,” Burr said, adding:
“They’re not exactly sure what they want. I think [the campaign] can certainly make a comeback because I don’t think it’s out of the race.”
“I think that this has not been a traditional election cycle to date, and the McCain campaign is adjusting to try to accommodate exactly what is going on. But a lot of the oxygen has been sucked out by the incredible amounts of money that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have raised."
“John McCain," Burr added, "was only several million dollars behind Rudy Giuliani. ... So as they begin to retool the campaign, I’m confident the American people will be focused on what John McCain says and not the amount of money he has.”
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