Top McCain advisors step down

Times Staff Writer

With his presidential campaign in a state of near-collapse, Sen. John McCain accepted the resignations of two top advisors Tuesday, then quickly named a new campaign manager in a bid to put his candidacy for the Republican nomination back on course.

The departures of chief strategist John Weaver and campaign manager Terry Nelson marked a new low in McCain’s second run for the White House. Once the Republican front-runner, he now faces a severe cash shortage that has driven him to cut more than half of his campaign staff, which once numbered 150.

The Arizonan’s support for the Iraq war and an overhaul of immigration laws also hurt his appeal across a wide spectrum of the party’s voters.


Nelson, who offered no public explanation for his resignation, conceded last week that the campaign was built on the unrealized premise that McCain would raise more than $100 million this year; it reported $2 million in the bank at the end of June.

On Tuesday, McCain replaced Nelson with Rick Davis, a longtime aide who had been the campaign’s chief executive officer.

More startling was the resignation of Weaver, a Texan who helped guide McCain’s rise in national politics and designed the plan for the 2008 race. Weaver once described himself as “the one guy who can tell John, ‘No.’ ”

In a statement, McCain called Weaver “my friend and trusted counselor for many years.”

He said he had accepted resignations from Weaver and Nelson “with regret and deep gratitude.”

Also stepping down were Reed Galen, McCain’s deputy campaign manager, and Rob Jesmer, his political director.

Mary Kate Johnson, his finance director, submitted her resignation as well, but her status was unresolved, a McCain aide said.

For weeks, McCain has faced doubts about his political viability, and questions about whether he could stay in the race mounted following new turmoil within his camp. He told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday that he would stick it out.

On the Senate floor, he gave a speech reiterating his support for President Bush’s troop buildup in Iraq, saying the U.S. military was “making progress.” He plans to give another speech on Iraq in New Hampshire on Friday.

“My friends, it’s no secret that we have faced many challenges in this campaign,” McCain told supporters in an e-mail. “But I continue to do my best to make you proud by standing on principle and doing the tough things necessary to make our nation proud and strong -- it’s the only way I know how.”

McCain supporters expressed hope that the change in command would launch his recovery. San Francisco venture capitalist J. Gary Shansby, one of McCain’s national fundraising co-chairmen, called the resignations “appropriate.”

“One of the problems is that the spending has been a little out of control,” said Shansby, who spoke with McCain and his new campaign manager Tuesday.

McCain reported raising nearly $25 million during the first half of the year but spent nearly all the money. His aides have declined to disclose his debt level, which has raised the prospect that the spending report that he must file by Sunday will show that the campaign was functionally broke at the end of June.

“Too much staff, too much overhead, too much payroll, and adjustments are being made,” said Richard Quinn, a South Carolina consultant to McCain who is no longer being paid. “John McCain is taking charge of his campaign.”

It is a long tradition for presidential candidates in trouble to sweep aside top aides in hopes of launching a comeback. Ronald Reagan, Michael S. Dukakis, Bob Dole, Al Gore and John F. Kerry each did so -- with mixed results.

In McCain’s case, the ascension of Davis to the top spot could, at minimum, reduce feuding among his top advisors. Davis had long been at odds with Weaver, Nelson and Mark Salter, a close advisor to McCain and co-author with him of several books, most of them about the senator’s life. Salter has been cut from the campaign payroll but will still advise McCain, an aide said.

One Republican familiar with the campaign’s workings said the departures of Weaver and Nelson could lead more aides to “follow them out the door.”

The Republican, who requested anonymity when discussing the campaign’s problems, expressed skepticism that McCain could rebound. “It’s probably going to be very damaging to the campaign, possibly fatal,” the Republican said.

Many of McCain’s difficulties stem from his positioning in a highly competitive GOP race.

Hans Kaiser, a Republican strategist unaligned in the presidential race, said voters in the party’s primaries had not seen “any great Republican vision for the country coming out of John McCain.”

He has not been “generating any enthusiasm among the base Republican voters,” which sets back fundraising, Kaiser said.

Still, Kaiser said, “I wouldn’t write him off. He’s in a difficult place right now, but a lot of presidential candidates go through difficult periods.”

Shansby, the McCain fundraiser, said the candidate had “the tenacity of a pit bull” and should not be dismissed as “road kill.”

“We have a long way to go” until the first votes are cast in the nominating process early next year,” Shansby said. “Don’t underestimate what this man can do.”


Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak and Dan Morain contributed to this report.