The bitterfight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is a gift to the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain. It's the gift of time to strengthen his campaign this spring. But McCain needs to use that time well, because even though he has moved ahead in some national polls, the Iraq war, the slumping economy and the unpopularity of President Bush make this still a very threatening environment for Republicans.
McCain’s team is planning three steps now to get a jump start on the fall campaign.
The visible part involves fleshing out McCain’s public image. On March 31 he begins a “Service for America” tour, which aims to link the Arizona senator’s biography to his values and policy stances. It won’t be easy to attract attention while Obama and Clinton keep fighting, but campaign manager Rick Davis is counting on McCain's knack for drawing media coverage, which he calls the best of any candidate in history.
Second, McCain is planning a furious fund-raising drive to narrow the Democrats’ wide lead on that front. He’ll have a dozen fund-raisers in the next week alone, with a similar pace planned throughout this spring.
A third priority is building up McCain’s campaign infrastructure, which has been very thin ever since his fund-raising collapsed in 2007. He has installed operatives at the Republican National Committee, and they can work with White House aides to help McCain’s strategic planning. Yet McCain still lacks a pollster, and his ad-maker Mark McKinnon has said he wouldn’t work against Obama’s bid to become the first African-American president.
Some Republicans outside the campaign worry McCain’s not moving fast enough. And Democrats are planning an attack on McCain’s credentials for straight talk.
But right now Democrats are mostly consumed with attacking each other, which has Republicans feeling increasingly optimistic. As one leading Republican pollster told me, “The playing field still tilts against us, but the slope is not as steep.”