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McCain Manager Looks Ahead To November

By Reid Wilson

SANTA ANA PUEBLO, New Mexico - Preparing for a November showdown with one of the two remaining Democratic candidates, Rick Davis, a veteran campaign hand now tasked with steering John McCain's presidential campaign to victory, spent much of last week plotting strategy with top targeted states at a meeting of the Republican National Committee just outside Albuquerque. In an interview with Real Clear Politics, Davis maintained that his candidate is in good position, but that there will be serious hurdles to overcome.


Part of the problem, according to Davis, is that not everyone knows much about the Republican nominee-in-waiting. "If you took a poll today, people would be able to identify [McCain's] name, 90%. They'd probably know he's a former Vietnam Veteran and maybe a senator from Arizona," Davis said. "It's a classic mistake made by most national campaigns, that they assume that if everybody in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida knows you, you must be known nationally."

It is convenient that Davis was able to attend the meetings half an hour north of Albuquerque, a city that may be key to the Arizona Senator's chances in November. Early last week, the campaign debuted the first television advertisement of the general election - a biographical spot focusing heavily on McCain's time in Vietnam as a prisoner of war - in New Mexico, a state Al Gore won by just 365 votes in 2000 and George W. Bush won by about 6,000 votes in 2004.


Davis said the spot's launch during the RNC meeting was coincidence, ("It's relatively inexpensive, which is what I find most attractive about it," he laughed) but that it foreshadows future ventures into paid media the campaign will make, especially as the campaign defines their candidate. "This ad will appear in other states as we get through the queue, and obviously the current political environment affords us some time to take advantage of this and do these kinds of educational weeks," he said. "It gives us the opportunity to do something that not many people have written about or talked about, is that we have a Spanish language ad up too."


McCain's team is pleased, they maintain, that the map appears to be more open than in any other recent years. "Bush-Kerry, Bush-Gore, I mean they had like ten states that were in play, maybe twelve, that the entire campaign was waged in. I mean we're talking more than twenty," he said, pointing to Democratic-leaning states from Wisconsin and Minnesota, which hasn't voted Republican since 1952, to "everything west of the Mississippi Valley" as a targeted state.


"The big question marks are the West Coast. I mean, is California going to be in play? And obviously, Washington and Oregon have been swing states," he added. Democrats would disagree that any of the three states would be in serious jeopardy, especially as John Kerry had virtually no trouble keeping each in the Democratic fold in 2004.


While in New Mexico, Davis and his staff held one-hour meetings with about twenty of those targeted states, listening to state officials' pitches for help and assessments of local conditions and the campaign's chances. Davis' staff has also worked in recent weeks to integrate campaign operations with the RNC itself, as well as its fundraising arm, the Victory Committee, run by McCain ally and former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina.


Beyond planning for states to target in November, Davis is beginning to consider how to frame the contrast with Barack Obama, and how to beat back attacks from national Democrats. McCain can make the claim that he is the more experienced candidate, Davis said, because his is an experience of bringing change, offering the best of both worlds. "We're not going to concede change to a guy who's not changed anything in his career. John McCain's been the change agent in the United States Senate for 20 years. Nobody's fought for more change in the place, nobody's spent more political blood than he has to get things to happen differently," Davis said. "Barack wants to talk about the future, let's prove it by looking at who's actually made change in the present."


The argument is also fundamentally different from that which Hillary Clinton tried, and apparently has failed, to make in the primaries: "I wouldn't say John McCain is like Hillary Clinton. And that's the experience that didn't work," Davis said.


Democrats have spent the past months seeking to portray McCain as the bearer of a third term for President Bush, and trying to saddle the entire party with the "Bush Republican" moniker. If that effort is successful, the GOP will likely lose in November. President Bush remains consistently unpopular; his approval rating sits at just 32% in the latest RealClearPolitics Average, near where it has been mired for more than a year.


Davis has no intention, he says, of letting McCain be associated with Bush, though it's clearly a concern the campaign has thought about. "I think [Americans] know there's a big difference between John McCain and George Bush, and on some critical issues, whether they're climate, or torture, or the war and things like that," Davis said. "And yet, you know, couldn't be more supportive, couldn't have a better relationship when it comes to wanting to make sure it's our vision of the country that keeps moving forward in the next four years."


Historically, Davis says, McCain wins more support from independents and Democrats than any other Republican. "When you start there and say, 'What kind of appeal does this guy have?' Well, he's got some of the broadest appeal of any candidate we've had since Ronald Reagan," Davis said of his candidate.


In fact, though McCain may not have been their personal choice for president, many House Republican strategists admit that the Arizonan, unlike President Bush, can go into states and districts without being a weight on down-ballot candidates. While Bush's appeal diminishes the farther he gets from Texas, one prominent operative said, McCain's is universal around the country.


McCain stopped in Illinois to raise money for businessman Jim Oberweis, whose bid was ultimately unsuccessful, but Davis said that more candidates would be on the list. "We got lots of invitations and we're going to try and be as helpful as we can," Davis said. "Anywhere we can help the ticket, in states that we're working in anyway, you know, we want to try and do that."

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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