WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The plight of Republican Sen. John McCain’s campaign for U.S. president conjures up all sorts of mixed metaphors: On a wing and a prayer, teetering on the brink, one foot in the grave, down to his last bullet.
Can he come back from the dead, rise from the ashes, turn the tide, survive to fight another day? Or has the train already left the station?
Political gurus say it will be extremely hard for him to rebound from financial woes, but that one can never completely rule out McCain, the Vietnam war hero and Arizona senator who gave George W. Bush a run for his money in the 2000 election.
“Sen. McCain’s standing as an American hero and a stalwart defender of his principles will always get him a seat at the table,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “But it’s extremely difficult to run a campaign at any level, especially the presidential level, with very limited resources.”
“The real question right now is why someone would write a check to the McCain campaign if they have not already done so in the past. I have a hard time coming up with a good answer to that question,” Ayres said.
McCain built a campaign planning to raise $100 million. Only about a quarter of that amount had come in after McCain angered the Republican base by backing a U.S. immigration overhaul that critics called amnesty for illegal immigrants.
He also has taken a tough position in support of Bush’s troop buildup in Iraq and, at 70, is competing against two Republicans who offer fresher faces, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Down to its last $2 million, the campaign has slashed costs, dumped staff and is studying more ways to cut its budget while trying to raise money and be in a position to run campaign television advertisements in the fall.
He will focus on New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa, the states that hold the first primary elections for the Republican presidential nomination ahead of the November 2008 election.
Polls show him running behind Giuliani and Romney in those states.
“I’m looking at it as a kind of starting over,” said Republican strategist Charlie Black, a senior McCain adviser. “You’ve still got the best campaigner, and a guy who is actually better in an underdog role, and it’s a completely wide open race.”
Bill Greener, a former official at the Republican National Committee, said it was possible to run a lean campaign but he had to have enough money to deliver a message and pay the cost of basic physical operations.
“What it really takes to operate a credible campaign is probably a lot less than we might anticipate,” he said.
Chris Lehane, a political consultant who aided the campaign of Democrat Al Gore in 2000, said the obstacles for McCain were many and he would have to campaign like someone living in the African bush: “Live off land and move on a moment’s notice.”
“A modern-day campaign is like keeping a 757 in the air all the time. It requires a lot of fuel and costs a lot of money. He’s going to have to run a really guerrilla-like campaign,” Lehane said.
Democrat John Kerry suffered financial problems in 2003 and managed to survive to become his party’s nominee. To a lesser extent Gore had some financial challenges.
“This one is significantly different,” Lehane said. “At least in those situations there was a baseline of financial support that still existed, an existing campaign infrastructure that at the end of the day served as a firewall ... This appears to be a free-fall situation.”