McCain's Confusing Primary Strategy

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Shawn Thew / EPA

Talk to staffers on John McCain's campaign — or staffers on rival campaigns — and they will all tell you the same thing: John McCain must win New Hampshire, where he won a key victory in 2000 and plans to campaign this weekend. He can't come in third; he can't come in second. One Republican strategist put it this way, "He should run as if he's running for governor there."

Which is why observers are puzzled that his campaign, currently almost $1.5 million in the red, spent another $100,000 to send 200,000 McCain flyers to potential supporters in — Iowa. He launched his health care policy rollout there and he was one of only two G.O.P. candidates who participated in AARP's debate there in September. The other was Mike Huckabee, whose attention to the state has been rewarded with a surprising jump to second place. But McCain, who has spent one out of every seven days since September in Iowa, with 11 days in total, has seen his poll ratings actually fall from 13% in August to 6% currently, just two points ahead of Ron Paul. By contrast, while he has spent almost the same amount of time in New Hampshire, 15 days combined, McCain's numbers have risen six percentage points since August, to 17%, putting him firmly in third place behind Romney and Giuliani.

But with the caucuses less than 50 days away, observers wonder why he's not spending more time and money in the state he can — and must — win. As the Republican strategist puts it, "John McCain has one chance, only one chance, to advance toward the nomination and that is by winning New Hampshire — anything that wastes resources from that goal is malpractice."

McCain is going back to New Hampshire this weekend, on a Straight Talk Express tour designed with prickly and proud Granite Staters in mind. On Friday, Chuck Douglas, a former New Hampshire Attorney General, personally delivered, on behalf of the campaign, a strongly worded demand that the state investigate a series of scurrilous push polls that have been targeted at Romney's Mormonism. McCain took this step hours before Romney himself did, and the McCain campaign hopes his display of devotion to fair play will appeal to the same New Hampshire voters who leveled the playing field for McCain, and gave him his greatest primary victory, in 2000.

After the campaign imploded earlier this year, staffers would use the "Fortress New Hampshire" scenario to explain to reporters — as well as voters — why, after all the media carnage, fund-raising shortfalls and staff overhauls, a McCain nomination was still possible. A win in New Hampshire would undermine Mitt Romney's organization, they said, and set up a showdown in South Carolina between Rudy Giuliani and McCain, where McCain should have an advantage with social conservatives. Then a McCain victory in South Carolina would, at the very least, make it a fair fight that McCain could win.

McCain advisers, in explaining the campaign's Iowa rationale, bounce between the need to prove that their Iowa expenditures are money well spent and the time-honored political tradition of "managing expectations." In one five-minute conversation, campaign manager Rick Davis both boasts that McCain has the "third largest organization in the state" and says, only barely joking, "One thing I've done well as campaign manager is driving expectations in Iowa to the floorboards." Another senior adviser issues a reminder of the campaign's brush with death — "This summer you wouldn't have predicted we'd even be having this conversation" — before declaring that McCain could come in "third, maybe even second" once the caucuses roll around. The most direct answer is Davis's, and it's based on managing press expectations: McCain can't pull out of Iowa, he says, because pundits "wouldn't give us credit for making the decision, and still report we came in fifth."

But the lack of a solid rationale for McCain's use of scarce resources in Iowa suggests that the campaign's leadership is not so much masterminding a comeback as holding on for dear life. Still, the campaign has had its moments of tactical ingenuity. After McCain's debate zinger in which he noted that he hadn't been to Woodstock because he was "tied up at the time," the campaign produced a TV ad that probably got more attention via free publicity than its paid air time. And the evening after a CNN anchor criticized McCain for playing along with an over-zealous crowd member's obscene description of Hillary Clinton, Davis sent out an e-mail solicitation alleging that CNN attacked because McCain would beat Clinton in a general election: "They are right to be scared. We are not going to back down." That solicitation became the basis for the second best day of online fund-raising the campaign has had.

Staffers there say that they are resigned to sharing the candidate's attention. And Davis dismisses the second-guessing of McCain's strategy bluntly. "Everyone's caught up in this macro-strategy s---," he says. "and it's a big waste of time."