McCain's Pro Bono Help

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John McCain's presidential campaign has no shortage of sophisticated political consultants. There's Steve Schmidt, who masterminded Arnold Schwarzenegger's comeback in California; veteran strategist Charlie Black, whose counsel has found an ear in every Republican White House since Reagan; Mark McKinnon, the political advertising genius who made John Kerry's wind surfing famous; Mark Salter, McCain's co-author, speechwriter and id; and Rick Davis, a successful lobbyist and Washington sage. They've all been with the campaign since it began, and they all survived its implosion last summer; the only thing that really took a hit in its aftermath, they joke, is their pocketbooks.

Since last July, all five have been working without pay, dedicating time and talent to a campaign that, six months ago, seemed like it couldn't be helped. This is a bigger sacrifice for some of them than others: Black says he never intended to take a paycheck (he got out of "professional politics" years ago), Salter's campaign salary before he became a volunteer was $200,000 a year; Davis would have made about that much. Schmidt was paid over $300,000 for the nine months he toiled for the Governator. And McKinnon? Media advisers on presidential campaigns personally take in, all told, about a $1 million for just over a year of work.

Unpaid advisers to political campaigns are not uncommon in and of themselves - Black served in that capacity for George W. Bush in 2000 - but they usually are auxiliaries to a campaign. In McCain world, they are the campaign. All have different motivations. McKinnon was an integral part of the Bush attacks that undid McCain in 2000; for him, the service is almost like penance. Salter hasn't worked for anyone else for almost twenty years. McCain himself sees this close-knit group as friends as much as staffers. Asked how he keeps up his grueling campaign schedule, McCain says, in part, "I couldn't do it without these jerks." What effect does their unpaid status have on their advice? McKinnon volunteers, "It's easier for him to ignore."

The five deputized Salter to respond to questions TIME had for the group.

Why did you decide to stay on without a salary?

For the obvious reason: We can't find work anywhere else.

Free advice is usually described as being worth exactly what you pay for it. How much is the free advice you're giving McCain worth?

You'd have to ask the Senator that, but probably about minimum wage.

How does working without a salary effect your day-to-day interactions with the Senator and/or staff? With each other?

We borrow a lot of cigarette money from both the Senator and from each other, which breeds a certain esprit d'corps.

Is it harder to quit or be fired if you're working for free in the first place?

Very hard to get fired. We've tried.

What has made it worth it? Was it winning New Hampshire? South Carolina? Or is it just the satisfaction of keeping the campaign alive against the odds?

All of the above, but the donuts and gallons of coffee have been an added bonus

What politician from the past would you be willing to lend your unpaid consulting skills to?

Winston Churchill. He would have fed and watered us more generously.

When do you expect to start getting paid?

Inauguration day.