McCain’s Advisers Once Made Ads That Drew His Ire
WASHINGTON, Feb. 2 — Senator John McCain, intent on succeeding where his freewheeling presidential campaign of 2000 failed, is assembling a team of political bruisers for 2008. And it includes advisers who once sought to skewer him and whose work he has criticized as stepping over the line in the past.
In 2000, Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, said the advertisements run against him by George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, distorted his record. But he has hired three members of the team that made those commercials — Mark McKinnon, Russell Schriefer and Stuart Stevens — to work on his presidential campaign.
In 2004, Mr. McCain said the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth advertisement asserting that Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts had not properly earned his medals from the Vietnam War was “dishonest and dishonorable.” Nonetheless, he has hired the firm that made the spots, Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, which worked on his 2000 campaign, to work for him again this year.
In October, Mr. McCain’s top adviser expressed public displeasure with an advertisement against former Representative Harold E. Ford Jr., Democrat of Tennessee, that some saw as having racist overtones for suggesting a flirtation between Mr. Ford, who is black, and a young, bare-shouldered white woman, played by a blond actress.
The Republican committee that sponsored the spot had as its leader Terry Nelson, a former Bush campaign strategist whom Mr. McCain hired as an adviser last spring. In December, just weeks after the Ford controversy broke, Mr. McCain elevated Mr. Nelson to the position of national campaign manager.
Taken together, the moves provide the strongest indication yet that Mr. McCain intends to run a far tougher campaign than the one he ran in the 2000 primary. And they come as he transitions from being a onetime maverick to a candidate seeking to gather his party around him and create an air of inevitability about his prospects for winning nomination.
As Mr. McCain assembles his team, he is also making it that much harder for his Republican challengers by scooping up a significant circle of the party’s top talent.
In recent years, Mr. McCain has made a concerted effort to mend fences with Mr. Bush and reassure the Republican base that he is a reliable conservative. But his moves have focused new attention on the extent to which he may risk sacrificing the image he has long cultivated of being his own man, driven by principle rather than partisan politics.
Mr. McCain’s advisers said he was not changing. But they were unapologetic about putting together a group dedicated to doing what it takes to reach the White House and employing lessons from his defeat at the hands of Mr. Bush in 2000.
“This is about winning at the end of the day,” said John Weaver, Mr. McCain’s longtime senior strategist. “I don’t want to be in a knife fight ever again, but if I am, we’re going to win it.”
Mr. McCain’s representatives said he would not provide an interview.
Seven years ago, Mr. McCain charmed the news media and the public with his Straight Talk Express bus tour. He had a lean operation befitting an upstart candidacy, and he regularly spoke out against attack advertising, a quaint notion in retrospect.
In the end, he ran his share of confrontational advertisements, once even leveling the ultimate Republican-to-Republican insult: that Mr. Bush was as dishonest as Bill Clinton. But he was perceived as having been knocked back on his heels by the rougher, tougher Bush campaign.
Now Mr. McCain is building a larger organization, bringing together the heart of the bare-knuckled Bush crew once overseen by Karl Rove while keeping most of the advisers who ran his shoestring effort of 2000.
“It’s like an all-star World Wrestling Federation cage match, except that instead of fighting one another, all of the brawlers are on the same team,” said Steve McMahon, a strategist for the Democratic National Committee. “There are very few people who play this game at the highest level, and on the Republican side these guys are among the best.”
Mr. McCain has also hired Brian Jones, an adviser to Mr. Bush’s 2004 campaign; Fred Davis, a media consultant for Mr. Bush in 2004; and Steve Schmidt, who oversaw Mr. Bush’s 2004 war room, exploiting any tidbit that could help paint Mr. Kerry as a “flip-flopper.”
The hires are another signal that the 2008 primary campaign could be a combative one all around.
On the Democratic side, John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina, has wasted no time attacking Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s position on Iraq. And Mrs. Clinton’s team includes strategists who invented the concept of the modern campaign war room for her husband 15 years ago. But Senator Barack Obama of Illinois drew cheers at a party gathering on Friday when he warned his fellow candidates against attacking one another.
Mitt Romney, a Republican and the former governor of Massachusetts, has hired Alex Castellanos, a onetime Bush strategist who also famously produced the 1990 commercial for Jesse Helms, the former North Carolina senator, in which a pair of white hands crumpled a rejection letter as a narrator said, “You needed that job and you were the best qualified, but it had to go to a minority because of a racial quota.”
Given Mr. McCain’s history with some of the people on his team, the evolution of his staff may present an early challenge: How does he stay true to the “Straight Talk” spirit of his 2000 campaign, which helped him win the stature he has now, while also engaging in the political brinkmanship it can take to win?
The Democratic National Committee is already criticizing Mr. McCain for his hires, issuing a statement this week calling them “a testament to how far he’s gone down the do-anything-to-win path.”
Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster who is not yet allied with a candidate, said Mr. McCain was running the risk of looking “politically expedient” and of blunting his brand as “Senator Straight Talk.” He said the risk was highlighted by Mr. McCain’s recent suggestions that he may not use the campaign finance system he has long championed.
In 2000, Mr. McCain received money from the system, which gives public financing to candidates who agree to strict spending limits. Mr. Weaver, the senior strategist, said Mr. McCain was keeping his options open because others, including Mrs. Clinton, were planning to work around the system.
As Mr. McCain’s aides often point out, for all its appeal, the McCain 2000 campaign was a losing one. And they said it would be unfair to suggest that because Mr. McCain was augmenting his team he was somehow preparing to change who he was.
“There are no negotiations regarding his principles,” Mr. Weaver said.
In an interview on Friday, Mr. Jones, the campaign communications director, said Mr. McCain was not allowing his distaste over the Swift Boat commercials to interfere with his relationship with Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, with whom Mr. McCain has his own decade-long association. In addition, he said, Mr. McCain hired Mr. Nelson because of his breadth of experience in national campaigns. “The campaign,” Mr. Jones said, “is not going to let past contests on the battlefield limit how it’s going to go after talent.”
Presidential politics are rich in fungible allegiances. James A. Baker III ran the primary campaigns of Gerald Ford and the elder George Bush against Ronald Reagan, only to become Mr. Reagan’s chief of staff. This year, David Axelrod is serving as a senior strategist for Mr. Obama; he was a senior strategist to Mr. Edwards in his 2004 campaign.
“You could dissect any campaign this way: this guy did this ad this one time,” said Mr. Schriefer, the former Bush media strategist, who will run Mr. McCain’s advertising team. “There’s a tremendous history of foes becoming allies.”
Mr. McKinnon, who led Mr. Bush’s advertising group in 2004, said he saw no inconsistency in working for Mr. McCain. Mr. Bush was right for 2000, he said, and Mr. McCain is right for 2008. “At the end of the day, the campaign will be won or lost on the character of the candidate and his or her core message,” Mr. McKinnon said. “Of course, I believe that will be John McCain.”
Asked if the senator would avoid the attacks he criticized in 2000, Mr. Jones said that while Mr. McCain had yet to declare his candidacy, any campaign he ran would be “consistent with his beliefs and values.”