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McCain Campaign: The Early Days

The 2008 presidential campaigns will long be remembered as historic.  Of course, one of the most remarkable thresholds crossed was the record breaking financial resources raised and spent through the process.  In fact our fund-raising for McCain-Palin 2008 raised over $450 million, by far the most successful in Republican Presidential campaign history.  The previous record was $260 million, set by Bush-Cheney in 2004.  Much will be discussed over the coming years on how political races should be financed.  With record shattering funds raised by both campaigns and political parties it’s easy to see why.

As mentioned in an earlier post, I had the distinct privilege of serving first as a National Finance Co-chairman and then as de-facto National Finance Chairman for Senator McCain these past two years. While I have served on many campaigns, in a variety of different leadership positions, this was the first time I focused most of my energies on finance.   Having spent the past few months reflecting on my time leading the finance team I would like to share a few of my observations, in a short series of posts over the next few days about this historic campaign.  I welcome any and all thoughts that you’d like to share.

THE EARLY DAYS

John McCain approached me to support his bid for President in mid-2006.  Although I had been contacted by each of the to-be Republican candidates, it was an easy choice to support John. My initial assignment was to Chair or Co-Chair a Senior Advisor Group that would meet with John every other week to provide an objective and unvarnished view of what was right and what was wrong with the campaign:  to give those hard truths that are often difficult to get from staff.  This assignment was exciting to me as it tied in with my prior political roles as 1988 Convention Director and 1992 Campaign Manager for President George H.W. Bush.  However, due to John’s campaign travel and Senate responsibilities, it never really got off the ground.  In March 2007, it became apparent that fundraising was lagging, and I was asked to serve as one of his original 20 National Finance Co-chairman and charged with the task of helping to raise $100 million for the primary. That seemed like an awful lot.

As someone who supported John’s bid from the beginning, it’s hard to forget the high political ups and deep political downs the campaign faced through the election cycle.  Thinking back, one of the original disappointments we encountered was the announcement of poor fundraising numbers during the first quarter of 2007.  Much of this was due to John’s steadfast and courageous support of the unpopular surge in Iraq and of immigration reform.

Regardless of the inflow of cash, the campaign’s leadership, who at that point consisted of Terry Nelson as Campaign Manager and John Weaver as Chief Political Strategist, was still spending towards the $100 million budget.  The campaign was at its first major (of what would be many) finance hurdles.  As a result, John Weaver and Carla Eudy asked Tom Loeffler, who was then serving as General Co-chairman and as a National Finance Co-chairman, to assume the responsibilities of National Finance Chairman.

Tom approached his new responsibilities, and the dire financial situation, with the calm and collective presence that he always portrays.  What was unapparent however, was the tremendous turmoil-taking place behind the scenes. It wasn’t more than a month before an announcement came that Mary Kate Johnson would replace Carla Eudy as the campaign’s finance director.

Not long after Carla’s departure, a meeting of the National Finance Co-chairman occurred and a plan was laid out to reach the necessary targets to meet the budget and win the Republican primary.  We left the meeting with assurances that spending was under control and that more time was being allocated to accommodate additional fundraising events across the country.

June served as the final fundraising month of the second quarter and John planned to spend a great deal of time traveling the country raising funds and gathering support for the campaign. Unfortunately, political plans do not often line up with realities.  In June of 2007 Congress decided to tackle the very divisive issue of Immigration Reform.

Whether you loved or hated John’s position in the Immigration debate, his actions that June exhibited the quintessential get-in-the-middle, role up your sleeves, bi-partisan leadership that has marked his service to our country.  Unfortunately, at the time, much of the Republican base did not see this leadership as a positive attribute.  As a result, the fundraising well dried up, and it could not have come at a worse time.

The National Finance Co-chairmen were invited to John and Cindy’s beautiful cabin in Sedona to review campaign strategy and fundraising. The date was June 30.

Terry and John Weaver presented the situation to us. The campaign had accrued a great deal of debt due to heavy spending and the harsh fundraising environment in June.  In fact the campaign was not only broke but owed money.  Despite the problem, John remained encouraged and upbeat.  He shared his vision for America and thanked us for continuing to support his bid. Marlene and I enjoyed the stay at the McCain’s cabin thoroughly and left with deep concerns but continued commitment.

John left Sedona and headed to Iraq with his good friends and colleagues Lindsay Graham and Joe Lieberman.  Although we left Sedona with great uncertainty on the future of the campaign, we also left with a stronger commitment to John and his vision for our country, and a deeper impression of his resolute discipline and perseverance.

It’s funny given that I run in both business and political circles, for years if not decades, I would consistently hear CEOs complain about politicians and Washington and state, “if politicians could only be for like us, Washington and this country would be a better place.”  In light of our current economic crisis, I can say without a doubt if every CEO had the discipline, perseverance and sense of honor of John McCain, this economy and this country would be in a much better place.

Up next, I will share my thoughts on “the leadership shake-up” and the beginning of the turn-around in the McCain campaign that led all the way to the nomination in St. Paul last summer.

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