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They kept McCain afloat

Times Staff Writer

In the second week of July 2007, a pall settled over the half-empty headquarters of John McCain in an Arlington, Va., skyscraper. The campaign was nearly broke. The top two officials had resigned. Two-thirds of the staff had been fired or left, and those who remained worried the campaign might never recover.

With headlines predicting the end, a small band of loyalists coalesced around McCain.

The new campaign manager, Rick Davis, was on the phone with donors in every state, asking them to hang on. Mark Salter, McCain’s aide of nearly two decades, walked from desk to desk at headquarters persuading core staffers not to bolt.

Strategist Charles Black, McCain’s longtime friend and a veteran of every Republican presidential campaign since Ronald Reagan’s 1976 bid, dropped in to remind the staff that Reagan had survived a similar implosion.

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From California, consultant Steve Schmidt was on the phone with McCain, getting him focused on the path ahead. Media advisor Mark McKinnon, watching from Austin, Texas, as the team he’d assembled collapsed, called in to say, “I’m still here.”

Toward the end of the week, Davis gathered the remaining staffers in an empty room. Some of them sat on boxes filled with McCain signs. The candidate thanked them for staying. His words caught in his throat when he paid tribute to Salter, who was painfully close to the departed advisors but bound to McCain with brother-like loyalty. The Arizona senator tried out a now-familiar laugh line -- “In the words of Chairman Mao, it’s always darkest before it’s totally black.”

Then McCain, his son Jimmy and Salter headed to New Hampshire to face dozens of reporters. “They’re really coming up to see if you’re going to get out of the race,” Salter told McCain, to buck him up. “Just keep the schedule. Just go do your thing.”

The ‘Sedona five’

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The journey from that moment to capturing the Republican nomination Tuesday night was propelled by many factors beyond McCain’s control. McKinnon said it was like drawing to an inside straight over and over.

The Iraq troop “surge,” which McCain had advocated, gained support. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee emerged as a serious candidate and beat former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Iowa. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani essentially pulled out of New Hampshire, clearing McCain’s way. Romney abandoned South Carolina, helping McCain to victory there, which gave him the momentum to win Florida.

But before all that, McCain’s comeback was largely engineered by a team that grew out of the summer collapse, who are jokingly called the “Sedona five” because of their strategy sessions at McCain’s Arizona cabin.

Davis, a calm and efficient lobbyist who impressed everyone with his budgeting skills, manned the northern Virginia headquarters. Salter, 53, who in his younger days spent four years as an Iowa spiker laying railroad tracks before becoming McCain’s speechwriter, was most often at McCain’s side.

Black, a lobbyist who initially signed on as debate coach, was drafted onto the Straight Talk Express bus by McCain as his tactician and, at 60, as the “wise elder of the group.” Schmidt, 37, a strategist who ran the 2004 Bush campaign war room, and McKinnon, a one-time songwriter who served as media strategist for President Bush’s White House campaigns, parachuted in from their respective bases in California and Austin.

They stayed “because of the candidate -- with really very little prospect of winning,” said McKinnon, 52. “For a lot of us, we wanted to stay just to help the old soldier get some of his medals back.”

A second chance

They set modest goals in late summer. McCain was still sliding in the polls and getting buried by the press; his advisors told him to stay under the radar while Davis straightened out the finances.

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Davis drafted a memo for donors showing how they would downsize the campaign’s far-flung operations -- focusing on a serviceable finish in Iowa and a win in New Hampshire to accelerate the campaign to the early states of Michigan, South Carolina and Florida.

He and Black assured them, along with McCain’s high-profile endorsers, that the campaign “didn’t need that much money.” Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, even Michigan, were not expensive media states. “Nothing was secret,” said Davis, who is 50. “That gave them something to focus on.”

For Davis, who had often been left on the sidelines of campaign strategy sessions by then-campaign manager Terry Nelson and consultant John Weaver, being elevated to the top job gave him a second chance to get McCain to the White House.

“I felt like we cheated history by not doing a good enough job getting [McCain] elected [in 2000],” Davis said. “I was dying for another crack at it.”

To improve morale and communication, Davis moved the entire staff into one long room, dubbed “the pit,” where the finance, communications and planning teams worked alongside one another.

The campaign slashed many salaries, top aides worked without pay, and virtually everyone had to fill multiple roles. Field organizers handled advance for McCain’s events. National press secretary Brooke Buchanan also became McCain’s on-the-road secretary, coffee fetcher and occasional baggage hauler.

In an organization that had once spent money on luxuries like a snow plow to clear the way for McCain’s bus, Davis issued a mandate that the campaign would never spend more in a week than it raised. Every Friday afternoon, the finance team sorted through requests. “Ninety-five percent of people [Davis] talked to, he was telling them ‘No,’ ” Black recalled.

The campaign stopped building its own events and trawled for invitations. “If you went to a Rotary in Manchester [N.H.], it didn’t cost you anything,” Davis said. “So we went to a lot of Rotary Clubs. . . . The philosophy in July, August, September and October was: Don’t spend money unless you absolutely needed it.”

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When McCain inched up in polls in the fall, aides called from Iowa begging: “Could you just give us something?” But “every decision had to be subordinate to winning New Hampshire,” Salter said.

Back in the headlines

The political team wanted McCain back in the headlines by September. They knew attention would be on General David H. Petraeus’ report to Congress on the Iraq troop buildup and another debate over withdrawal from Iraq.

When McCain pressed for the buildup in the early days of his candidacy, pollsters admonished his team to “get away from it.” But McCain’s trip to Iraq in July with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham convinced him the increase was working. “What would be the point of asking him to walk away from it? You’d get nothing but an earful,” Salter said.

Schmidt, who’d handled Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s controversial Supreme Court nomination for the White House and rescued Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 reelection campaign at a time when the governor’s approval rating was in the 30s, thought McCain’s only way out was to “get into the arena,” one senior aide recalls.

Schmidt, McCain and Graham decided on a string of events highlighting the troop buildup, in which McCain would travel with veterans and fellow prisoners of war beginning Sept. 11 in Iowa, and moving on to New Hampshire and South Carolina. “We had our share of experts telling us we were out of our minds” to keep the focus on Iraq, Davis said.

Fifteen people showed up at one of the first events. But some in McCain’s inner circle felt the tour drew an important contrast with Romney, who was being pounded with allegations he’d shifted his positions to suit his political fortunes. McCain’s oft-repeated line hinted at that -- “I’d rather lose a campaign than a war.”

Schmidt believed the tour showed McCain “as someone who wasn’t a quitter, someone who was tough, who was going to hang in there and fight for what he believed in. . . . It gave him oxygen in the race,” Schmidt said.

As McCain worked toward what would become 101 town halls before the New Hampshire primary, his poll numbers tilted slightly upward.

Telling the right story

With money still tight, Schmidt and McCain argued that they needed to follow up the tour with television ads in October -- reintroducing the candidate as a veteran, prisoner of war in North Vietnam and principled maverick. McKinnon, who had bonded with McCain in 2004 when the senator campaigned for Bush, resisted.

“We were just operating on pennies,” McKinnon said. He worried that if they aired ads so early, “we could wake up in a couple weeks and be flat broke -- and have no choice but to get out of the race.” But he gave in, agreeing to “roll the dice.”

McKinnon had seen the black-and-white footage of McCain as a prisoner of war with broken limbs, lying in a hospital bed, smoking a cigarette. “I knew immediately it was some of the most powerful footage I’d ever seen in my life as an advertising guy.”

But McCain thought it made him look vulnerable and didn’t want to use it. McKinnon drafted Salter to “go into the propellers to say, ‘Senator, we’ve got to do this.’ . . . Salter is always our hole card when we want to get something done,” McKinnon said. It worked.

McKinnon put together a small, mostly unpaid group he called Foxhole Productions and drafted Salter as a copy writer. They traded scripts over e-mail and wrote one during a late evening at a Florida hotel bar after a debate. McKinnon and his team cut the 11-minute version of McCain’s biographical film for $5,000. (McKinnon’s equivalent bio film for Bush cost $100,000.)

Voters frequently told McCain that they were most moved by a spot McKinnon’s team made about a compassionate North Vietnamese guard who tended to McCain as a prisoner of war. As McCain tells the story, the man silently reached out to him one Christmas by drawing a cross in the dirt outside McCain’s cell.

McKinnon’s crew struggled to replicate the story in 30 seconds. The producer found a stick, took the crew behind their editing studio and drew a cross in the dirt of the schoolyard next door. To McKinnon’s surprise, “it was one of the most impactful we made.”

The crowds slowly began to build, and by late fall money began trickling in.

Davis’ goal was to make an aggressive media buy in New Hampshire while staying under the caps that would allow them to collect public financing. He devised a now-controversial strategy to borrow $3 million to ramp up their ad buy. Davis notes that the short version of McCain’s evocative biographical ad played in every early state except Michigan, which he lost.

In New Hampshire, everything clicked. Reporters fought for seats on the bus, where McCain held court as Schmidt perched nearby, making eye contact when he needed to steer the senator back on message.

As the team began its most aggressive offensive against Romney in Florida, Salter vigorously defended McCain when reporters questioned the candidate’s accuracy and fairness, while Black plotted the delegate game ahead by phone with Davis from a captain’s chair up front. Fire marshals turned voters away from town halls as McCain’s crowds surged.

To the White House

The long slog brought the Sedona five to the White House on Wednesday, where they celebrated the end of the first leg of the journey over club sandwiches and tomato soup with members of Bush’s team.

All five stood at the far corner of the Rose Garden waiting for McCain and Bush to speak to reporters. For Black, it was a spot where he’d stood many times before. Salter had traded his customary traveling attire -- mud clogs, jeans and sweater (punctured with tiny holes where he hangs his aviator sunglasses) -- for a suit. “Don’t get used to it,” he said, smirking.

When asked about his team recently, McCain told reporters he wasn’t planning “to change anything at all.”

“When we sit at the table, and we do sit at the table . . . everybody joins and everybody talks and we are nearly equals,” McCain said. “They’re not afraid to tell me what they think is right.”

The only one who might bow out is McKinnon. He told McCain last year that he admired Barack Obama and would not run the media campaign against him in the general election. But the others doubt that McKinnon will leave, and they’re all planning to spend many more hours on the Straight Talk Express.

Davis laughed, remembering one of his deputy’s favorite sayings. “McCain rolls like Hotel California -- you can check in, but you can never check out.”

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maeve.reston@latimes.com


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