McCain tries to keep freewheeling style
WASHINGTON -- John McCain's presidential campaign has been likened to a pirate ship: A feisty captain, rhetorical saber in hand, leading a fiercely loyal crew against his Republican primary opponents.
The five experienced hands who navigated McCain's candidacy back from the brink of death are now charting the course toward the general election. All volunteers, his top advisers spent the weekend in Arizona plotting the transition.
Their challenge: Keep the organic feel of a bare-bones organization that the candidate has come to trust - and that has seen remarkable success - while expanding it into a GOP battleship able to take on either Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton and a Democratic Party hungry to regain the White House after eight years of Republican rule.
"I'm very happy with our advisers," McCain said last week, reflecting on his campaign's new chapter. "I'm not so much worried about that as I am losing the flavor of the campaign."
He wants to preserve his freewheeling style, especially the lengthy ask-anything town-hall-style events that are a hallmark of his campaign.
"We can't play it safe. We tried that once," McCain said, recalling the early months of the primary season, when critics say his campaign bore the mark of a large Bush-style bureaucracy and the cautiousness that came with it.
Back then, McCain paired veterans from George W. Bush's two successful elections with loyalists from his first failed candidacy. High-paid consultants were hired and some 150 staffers filled an expansive Northern Virginia headquarters.
McCain's allies grumbled that the campaign didn't fit the candidate and predicted the organization would crumble.
Sure enough, by last summer, McCain found his campaign account drained of some $25 million he had raised; staff layoffs and top-level management changes followed.
McCain went forward in his own way, and, by necessity, with a pared-down campaign.
Several people, including Michael Dennehy (politics), Carla Eudy (finance), Brett O'Donnell (debates) and Jill Hazelbaker (communications), played significant roles. And some Republican politicians, most notably South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, have been all but attached to McCain's side.
But five seasoned political operatives closed ranks to form McCain's inner circle through his improbable primary comeback and now as he embarks on the general election. They travel frequently with the candidate; a few were in Houston on Monday to see him pick up former President George H.W. Bush's endorsement.
This is McCain's brain trust:
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