The Republican presidential nomination John McCain is on the brink of securing comes not only with the GOP standard-bearer status but also with a list of general election tasks he must accomplish quickly.
Senior aides to the GOP's likely nominee emerged from a weekend strategy session in Arizona acknowledging they have a mound of work ahead as they seek to turn a slimmed-down primary operation into a general election behemoth. And McCain said the meeting was just the beginning of discussions over the next few weeks to lay the groundwork for the fall race.
"We haven't secured the nomination," the Arizona senator reminded reporters traveling with him this week as he campaigned in the Midwest ahead of Tuesday's Wisconsin primary that he was expected to win comfortably. He seemed to punt every question about the weekend meetings and, in effect, buy time before he has to answer for his general election strategy.
"We need to see what other candidates went through," McCain added, suggesting his team is studying the transitions of past presidential campaigns for guidance.
While few details are known about how McCain's team will proceed, he and his advisers clearly view the next few weeks as a critical period. McCain is expected to reach the 1,191 delegates needed to officially secure the nomination early next month while Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are likely to still be fighting for their party's nod.
Political analysts say the change in mind-set and mechanics from the primary campaign to general election can be daunting for the candidate as well as the political professionals guiding his course.
"The tasks expand exponentially and, at the same time, you have lots of people coming at you who want roles in the campaign," said Christopher Arterton, dean of The George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. "It's quite a diplomatic task as well as a management task."
Among the top nuts-and-bolts chores McCain's team has to tackle:
- Determine precisely how to use George W. Bush. He's unpopular with the electorate as a whole but rank-and-file Republicans still adore him. He's a prolific fundraiser and a skilled campaigner who could be a powerful surrogate to turn out the base. "I'd be honored to be anywhere with him under any circumstances," McCain said repeatedly Monday. But whether that translates into joint campaign events remains to be seen.
- Take over the Republican National Committee, including management of the national nominating convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul. By precedent, the party's nominee assumes control of the national committee. That body typically engages in the bulk of voter-contact and get-out-the-vote efforts and supplements the campaign's fundraising and opposition-research. This will be tricky for McCain, who is viewed skeptically by many RNC establishment Republicans.
Energize the fractured GOP behind the candidacy of a man who has a conservative Senate voting record but also a long reputation for bucking the party and working with Democrats. That will require rhetoric and events designed to rev up the GOP base to take on an energized Democratic Party. "We need to unite our party. We're going to face a tough competitor," he says daily now. While he's made progress on this front over the past two weeks, he has much work to do.
- Begin the vice presidential search. "We have not started a process," McCain said, insisting there was plenty of time to do so. Candidates typically select one person to develop a short list of candidates and begin a thorough vetting of prospects for the ticket. It's unclear whether McCain's team would follow that model or use a different method.
- Formulate a tight message. McCain already has started making his general election pitch. He casts Obama and Clinton as big-government, soft-on-security Democrats and argues he alone has the experience necessary to be a wartime commander in chief and to reform Washington. "I don't expect the themes to change," McCain has said, but he needs to crystalize his stump speech into a clear and concise theme.
- Bolster the campaign's fundraising. With the Bush family's blessings, McCain now can incorporate the Bush dynasty's vast and deep network of big-time donors into his own loyal money machine. Some Bush backers already have signed on, including Mercer Reynolds in Ohio. McCain's team also must find ways to encourage small contributors in a year when Democrats hopefuls have far out-raised Republicans.
Among other tasks: create an orderly a surrogate operation to spread the message, establish outreach to coalitions like anti-abortion activists and gun-rights proponents, decide how to handle debates, determine how best to use his Senate platform — and hire more campaign staff to accomplish these and other goals.