Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sen. John McCain‘s recent “no-surrender-in-Iraq” campaign tour generated enough press buzz for a slight bounce in the polls, but donations continue to head south, along with his prospects of becoming president, some Republicans say.

“The campaign has raised only $3.7 million to date for the quarter,” a longtime, influential friend of the Arizona Republican told The Washington Times.

“The hope was to reach $4.5 million, about a third of what was raised in the ‘disastrous’ second quarter,’ ” said the McCain supporter, who has access to the senator’s daily campaign operations.

The figures he cited — although anything but rosy — mask the even worse state of the campaign’s finances, said the source, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the senator.

“Those are gross numbers, not net,” the friend said. “Plus the campaign is carrying $2.5 to $3 million in debt. [He’s] done for.”

But Jill Hazelbaker, press secretary for the McCain campaign, said her boss “is up in at least five new national polls by two to nine points. Pollsters and experts agree that McCain is clearly gaining traction.”

Ms. Hazelbaker also denied that money is a vital issue for Mr. McCain.

Republican campaign consultant Bob Heckman said the senator “has had a good September and is fighting his way back into the race.”

Mr. Heckman, who previously worked for the campaign, thinks the race “is still up for grabs and McCain still has a real shot at the nomination.”

Mr. McCain’s problems erupted in July, when two top advisers and the entire press staff left the campaign.

At the time, the campaign reported that it had spent most of the $24 million it had raised in the previous quarter. Support plummeted, and Mr. McCain will almost surely have to take federal matching funds just to stay in the contest, a confidant of the senator said privately.

Mr. McCain was struck another blow on Monday with the resignation of his Michigan campaign chairman, state Attorney General Mike Cox.

Few political pros are as critical of the senator’s presidential campaign as Rick Shafton, a New Jersey Republican pollster, who said: “McCain is as relevant as Britney Spears. No one takes him seriously anymore.”

Despite occasional tire punctures, other Republican campaign officials say the wheels have not come off the “Straight Talk Express.”

“First, from my experience, state campaign chairmen tend to be more symbolic and titular rather than on-the-ground operatives,” Pennsylvania Republican communications strategist Charles Gerow said. “Their loss, therefore, is more symbolic than devastating. The loss [of Mr. Cox] is significant but not overwhelming.”

Mr. Gerow, who said he has not decided which Republican to endorse, argued that Mr. McCain “has shown a remarkable ability to reorganize, refocus and re-energize.”

“After his recent tour — the press reports I read said it was ‘highly successful’ — he may be in a position to stage a serious effort,” he said. “The positive shift in Iraq certainly doesn’t hurt him, either.”

“Who knows — John McCain may turn out to be the ‘comeback kid’ of 2008,” Mr. Gerow said.

In the latest Federal Election Commission report, Mr. McCain trailed far behind former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who had $18.3 million cash on hand and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who reported $12.1 million in his war chest.

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