John McCain

Despite a Bruising Battle, GOP Nominee Finds Ways to Stay in the Game

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Lazarus could take a lesson or two from Sen. John McCain. In this election, the GOP presidential candidate has come back from the dead not once but twice, even as he faces a new challenge on whether he can do it a third time.

In succeeding twice, Mr. McCain -- with the help of two separate marketing teams -- provided a textbook example of a marketer who didn't throw in the towel, one who found a way to keep the brand alive, grab maximum media exposure with fewer resources and turn the competition's strong points against him.

John McCain and Rick Davis
Photo: Charles Dharapak
GETTING THE BOUNCE: Campaign manager Rick Davis helped John McCain cut into the popularity of his opponent.
It's easy to forget that Team McCain was written off early during the Republican primary season. After a strong entrance, the Arizona Republican appeared dead in the water by mid-2007.

The big question at the moment wasn't a McCain comeback but which Republican would become the nominee and go on to get slaughtered by the Democratic candidate. The Democrats, after all, had two strong candidates fighting it out for first place. And after they chose either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, they'd simply ride to easy victory amid voter unhappiness with the economy, gas prices, the Iraq war and housing problems.

Yet Mr. McCain emerged victorious in the GOP race. Immigration receded as an issue, the surge in Iraq came to be seen as a success and his GOP opponents made their share of missteps.

cost of a biographical film made by the penny-wise McCain campaign
YouTube views of McCain during September
The primary-period story is mostly of Mark McKinnon, the head of George W. Bush's Maverick Media ad team.

When the immigration fight dried up fund-raising dollars, that plan fell apart. Mr. McKinnon stepped up, working with a partly volunteer force to head what became known as Foxhole Productions.

The team included Michael Hudome, a veteran political ad consultant who'd run the McCain team's 2000 Michigan campaign; Justin Germany, a 28-year-old web expert, pressed into duty as cameraman and editor; and Mark Salter, chief of staff, doing double duty as an ad copywriter.

"The campaign melted down, and everybody quit, leaving me and the interns," Mr. McKinnon said earlier this year in describing what happened. "He was written off by everybody, but I pledged to stay in it until the bus ran out of gas or ran me over."

Mr. McKinnon and Mr. Salter wrote campaign ads, even as Mr. McKinnon directed them while Mr. Salter also did speeches. Mr. Hudome and his MH Media produced campaign ads and bought media.

The team kept costs down.

Day to day
The biographical film Mr. McKinnon put together during the 2004 Bush campaign cost $100,000. Mr. Germany put together an 11-minute "Courageous Service" bio film for the McCain campaign for $5,000. A "cross in the sand" Christmastime spot telling a story about the candidate's time as a prisoner in North Vietnam cost $1,800. TV ads were repackaged as web videos and radio spots. The campaign's advertising was bought day to day, not week to week.

After emerging victorious in New Hampshire, Mr. McCain went on to lock up the GOP nomination. But conquering Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee was one thing. Tackling Barack Obama would be another entirely -- especially as it was clear the Democratic nominee was going to paint John McCain as four more years of President Bush.

And Mr. McCain would have to do it without one of his strongest team members. Mr. McKinnon, who'd accepted the McCain post on the condition he could bow out if Mr. Obama became the Democratic nominee, quit. The McCain campaign hired Steve Schmidt as campaign strategist to assist campaign manager Rick Davis. Mr. Schmidt, who had handled California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2006 campaign, tapped the partner of his political firm, Greg Strimple, and they enlisted Hollywood ad exec Fred Davis, of Strategic Perception. They were joined by Mr. Salter, pollsters Bill McInturff and Sarah Simmons, and senior strategist Charlie Black, as well as some holdovers.

The marketing team then went on another improbable mission: overcoming Mr. Obama's popularity. And it worked, at least for a while.

Not about issues
Team McCain kept the race tight by turning one of Mr. Obama's biggest strengths -- his celebrity -- against him. With the help of one 30-second spot comparing Mr. Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, Mr. McCain grabbed some of his rival's media spotlight and reframed the debate as one about personality and competence rather than one about issues.

While Mr. Obama was speaking to throngs in Europe, Mr. McCain's team was portraying the Democrat as someone with a Moses complex, featuring a spot with Charlton Heston as the prophet and referring to Mr. Obama as "the one."

Mr. Obama still had the advantage, especially after the Democratic convention seemed to capture the nation's imagination and broke TV viewing records. Even in his own party, Mr. McCain seemed to suffer an enthusiasm gap.

So Team McCain took another page from the Obama playbook with the nomination of unknown Sarah Palin as his running mate, creating an instant celebrity and helping rally conservative Republicans.

For a while that worked. But the nation's financial crisis changed the campaign's dynamics, especially after Mr. McCain said "the fundamentals of the economy are strong" as top Bush advisers were warning the economy was in dire straits and pushing bailout legislation. In recent weeks, Mr. McCain and his team have had to work on a third resurrection amid some worrisome poll numbers and a vast spending advantage by their rival.

Changing tacks
The McCain campaign first suspended activities to focus on passing the bailout, then responded with a heavy diet of negative ads. The ads questioned Mr. Obama's involvement with a 1960s radical, questioned whether Mr. Obama has "blind ambition" and whether he's "too liberal."

Some of the ads drew criticism as McCain backers suggested that Mr. Obama might be a "terrorist" and "traitor," forcing Mr. McCain to interrupt one town hall meeting to say that his differences with Mr. Obama were over politics.

As the campaign neared the end, the ad team was re-creating some messages to focus more on economic issues.

Still, rough as recent weeks have been, the McCain campaign has recovered before, and it would be foolish to count out the McCain brand.
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