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McCain's day job limits his campaigning

John McCain has a day job - and it may make getting a promotion all the more difficult.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., (right) must deal with his day job on Capitol Hill, while his two main rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, are out of office and can travel the country each day courting voters and raising money.Dennis Cook / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

John McCain has a day job - and it may make getting a promotion all the more difficult.

The four-term Arizona senator's top rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, are out of office, and, thus, can travel the country each day courting voters and raising money.

Not McCain.

"He does have a job. He has to do it," said Lud Flower, the Grafton County GOP chairman in New Hampshire, home of the nation's first primary. "The other two guys don't have jobs so, sure, they've been around more."

The Iraq factor
Encumbered by the demands of the Senate, McCain has had to spend plenty of time in Washington as the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, focused largely on the Iraq war. It's a post that serves as a platform for his presidential run but one that also could severely limit his time to campaign and, thus, threaten his position as the Republican to beat.

"Of course, we would like to have him out there seven days a week if we could, but it's still early enough that we can manage it," said Mark Salter, his top Senate adviser. "One thing I'm 100 percent certain about is no candidate will out-hustle him."

Running for president while serving in the Senate is a balancing act - skipping votes draws criticism of shirked duties, but lingering in Washington could make voters feel ignored and fundraisers feel restless.

Two of the top three Democratic candidates are also senators - Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois - while the third, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, has the freedom to campaign as much as he wants.

McCain is the only top-tier GOP candidate in the Senate - and he is in no way an average lawmaker. Not only is he the lead Republican on the key Senate committee overseeing the war, but he also, for better or worse, is the Senate's go-to guy on Iraq. And, as a senior senator, he tends to get involved in just about every other major legislative fight.

With the war dominating the first few weeks of Congress, McCain has found himself tied to the Capitol for most votes and hearings, and to pitch to a skeptical Senate the president's plan for sending 21,500 more troops to Iraq.

Waiting on an official annoucement
To be sure, McCain has fit in some campaign time while his staff builds support and financial networks across the country. With Congress on recess this week, for example, McCain has spoken to prospective voters in Iowa, South Carolina and elsewhere.

In California with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday, he talked up a bill he has sponsored to help curb global warming. The event illustrated the potential upside to his day job - he can sponsor legislation that he can promote on the campaign trail and send a message that he's doing something about the nation's ills.

Still, compared with Giuliani and Romney, McCain's Senate responsibilities inherently mean less time to raise money and travel to early voting states.

"He's sitting right there where he's been," said Charlie Black, a GOP consultant unaffiliated with the campaigns who says McCain remains the front-runner, "if there is a front-runner."

"When he announces and starts talking about his message more, we'll see if he doesn't get some momentum," Black added.

Nomination rivals
In the meantime, national popularity polls show Giuliani - a former mayor of New York and a household name - with a double-digit advantage, his leads having widened since he made clear he was running for president. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, barely registers in such surveys, but he has shown he's a serious competitor given his ability to raise $6.5 million in one day, and at least several million more since.

In recent weeks, Giuliani and Romney's actions - and McCain's focus on Iraq and the Senate - have fueled private rumblings among some Republicans in Washington that those two appear to be gaining steam while McCain seems to be stuck in neutral.

Tony Fabrizio, another unaligned Republican strategist, said McCain's fundraising total at the next finance reporting deadline will signal whether his Senate obligations are negatively affecting his presidential bid.

"Whether or not you think McCain's the front-runner, you certainly have to agree that Giuliani and Romney are out raising money every day because they can - and he appears not to be," Fabrizio said.

McCain's aides say he's on the road for part of each week and that fundraising is going well. He began 2007 with only $472,000 on hand, having spent $1.2 million largely laying the groundwork for a national campaign, hiring dozens of consultants and staffers, and setting up his headquarters.

In the early primary states, Republicans call the GOP fight a three-man race, involving McCain, Romney and Giuliani. However, McCain - whom Bush beat in 2000 - is widely considered the Republican establishment's candidate in a party that historically nominates the guy who lost in the previous contested primary.

"Between the top three, as far as what I'm hearing, it's pretty much even," said Robin Malmberg, the GOP chairwoman of Henry County in Iowa. Her counterpart in Williamsburg County in South Carolina, Sylvia Ackerman, said: "I don't think there's really a front-runner at this point."

Racheting up likely after March
Noting that primaries are still 11 months away, McCain aides say he will ratchet up his visits to key states when he formally announces his presidential run next month. That means he also will increasingly have to mesh his Senate responsibilities with his campaign needs.

It's a dilemma he faced last week.

Democrats who control the Senate scheduled a procedural vote on Iraq for Saturday, the same day McCain had planned to hold a series of question-and-answer sessions in Iowa. Calculating that his vote would not change the outcome and considering the vote Democratic political trickery, McCain skipped it to campaign.

By doing so, he took some heat from Democrats for his decision - a sign of what's come as he tries to straddle both worlds.