McCain's campaign manager breathes easier with nomination in sight

Rick Davis keeps the intraparty competition civil without encouraging support for Huckabee.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Rick Davis, campaign manager to Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Washington - Whatever challenges McCain campaign manager Rick Davis deals with today, they pale in comparison with the shortage of funds, sagging political support, and staff turmoil he faced when he took the job last summer.

So it is not surprising that when Mr. Davis met with some 40 reporters at a Monitor-sponsored lunch Wednesday, he appeared upbeat and cracked jokes.

Victory tends to gladden the hearts of political operatives, and Tuesday evening, Sen. John McCain celebrated primary wins in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. Analysts noted that the Arizona senator split the Virginia primary vote 50 to 41 percent with former Gov. Mike Huckabee. Meanwhile, Sen. Barack Obama got far more votes in Virginia than all the Republican candidates combined.

"We got a very good vote out of Virginia," Davis responded. "A 9-point race is a blowout in an election where most of these things have been decided by 3 or 4 points." Davis, who has been involved in presidential campaigns since 1980, also ran Senator McCain's 2000 bid for the White House.

The results of this week's primaries mean that Mr. Huckabee "would need to win 123 percent of remaining delegates" to get the Republican nomination, Davis wryly noted in a message to supporters late Tuesday. In his meeting with reporters, Davis walked a careful line apparently aimed at keeping the intraparty competition civil without encouraging support for Huckabee.

"I would like John McCain to be the nominee of the party, and the sooner that happens, the better off it is for all of us here, certainly me. So I am not encouraging anybody to stay in the race and contest it," he said.

But Davis noted that the low-cost presidential battle Huckabee is waging, often on cable TV, keeps the political press interested in the Republican nominating process. "Governor Huckabee's campaign, although we believe rather unnecessary in the process of winning delegates, is perfectly fine with us ... anything [that] sort of continues to allow us to campaign in states with some level of competition and hopefully draw your attention to keeping us in the narrative while we compete with what is obviously a very interesting race on the Democratic side," he said.

Political opponents have questioned how a four-term senator in his 70s can appeal to an electorate that seems very interested in change. "Senator McCain has always been the change agent. I think [University of Virginia Professor] Larry Sabato said about a year ago when we were watching the election start to form that Republicans have this unique opportunity to nominate a guy who is part of the establishment of the Republican Party but is the greatest agent of change in either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party," Davis said.

According to the Associated Press, four in 10 Republican voters on Tuesday said they were born-again or evangelical Christians and nearly 70 percent of them supported Huckabee, who began his career as a Baptist minister.

Davis argued that in the past several weeks, Republicans of all persuasions have been embracing McCain. "When you look at what has happened in the last two weeks, really since Super Tuesday inside the McCain campaign," Davis said, "you have seen, heard a landslide of high-profile Republican conservatives supporting John McCain. I think without trying to parse it by who brought what to the table, it is every ideological mix. In other words, there are economic conservatives, there are defense hawks, there are social conservatives. Every single thread of the Republican blanket has covered John McCain."

Funding is one challenge facing the likely Republican nominee. McCain stands by his earlier pledge to accept federal funding in the general election, Davis said. Accepting such funding places limits on private contributions. "Taking that money is a lot easier for me than having to go out and raise $100 million," he said. "We haven't really proved we are able to attract large sums of money the way the Democrats have been able to do it.... I don't know if it is because we are lousy at fundraising or Republicans are tired of giving money to politicians."

Senator Obama also has said he will accept federal funding in the fall. But Davis quipped, "If I were raising $35 million a month [like Obama], I would think that through.

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