When Rick Davis won a brutal struggle within the McCain campaign this summer, his reward was what would be one of the toughest jobs in politics: the organization’s campaign manager.
The operation was nearly broke, having spent freely despite lackluster fund-raising. Senator John McCain of Arizona had infuriated conservatives with his support of an immigration proposal and had alienated independents with his backing for the Iraq war. A host of staff members left, and for days there was a very public airing of dirty laundry. It was the political equivalent of a near-death experience.
So Mr. Davis, a veteran of Republican presidential campaigns and administrations and a former lobbyist who managed Mr. McCain’s 2000 run for the White House, had his work cut out for him. Taking over amid accusations that he had used the campaign to enrich one of his companies, he began by simply trying to keep things going — reassuring shaken supporters and cutting the budget to the point where a onetime Hollywood blockbuster of a presidential campaign took on the feel of an indie.
“The problem wasn’t with the McCain candidacy,” he said in a recent interview. “It was with the McCain campaign.”
Now that the tempestuous summer has faded, Mr. McCain is, by most accounts, doing better as a candidate: drawing good responses from big crowds, showing more of his puckish humor and maverick streak, giving well-received debate performances and rising a bit in the polls. But the campaign’s challenge is still acute: it is now living on borrowed money.
Mr. McCain reported this month that his money on hand was only a small fraction of that held by his leading rivals. Of his total, $1.67 million can be spent on the primaries, a sum exceeded by the $1.73 million that the campaign owes.
Laboring once more against long odds, Mr. Davis has refocused the campaign on the early states and on letting Mr. McCain act as his own best resource in town-hall-style meetings and on Sunday morning talk shows. The campaign has put television advertisements on the air in its strategic linchpin, New Hampshire, a state it carried in 2000. And it just spent $100,000 on a mailing in Iowa (an investment some supporters think would have been better made in New Hampshire).
Still, as the candidates head into the hotly contested final stretch before the onset of the primaries, it appears increasingly likely that the McCain organization will have to accept federal matching funds. To do so would provide much-needed cash but would place limits on the amounts spent in the crucial early states.
But Mr. Davis, 50, a jacket-and-tie kind of guy with a runner’s build who stands out in the typically rumpled world of political operatives, has won upsets before. As deputy manager of Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign, for instance, he gained a come-from-behind victory at a Florida straw poll in part by staging an elaborate reception with Mr. Dole’s wife, Elizabeth.
“I bought, literally, thousands of dollars of Godiva chocolate,” he recalled.
Mr. Davis’s current challenge was undertaken in a charged atmosphere. While some supporters of the campaign have come to view him as its savior, others complain that given his former role as its chief executive, he shares blame for the implosion it is now trying to recover from.
When Mr. McCain’s first campaign manager, Terry Nelson, left this summer, he was followed out by John Weaver, the longtime chief strategist who had originally helped persuade the senator to run for president. Out of loyalty to those two men, other top aides resigned.
Taking over, Mr. Davis was painted by his rivals as an opportunist who had managed to wrest control of the organization in part by winning influence with Mr. McCain’s wife, Cindy.
Some of those rivals also accused him of self-dealing, since 3eDC, a company he partly owns, had been retained by the campaign to provide Web services. Aides questioned whether Mr. Davis’s role in the company had been fully disclosed and said Mr. Weaver, having learned of the arrangement, had tried to end it.
All told, 3eDC billed the campaign more than $1 million for Web services during the first half of the year. (The amount still owed the company accounts for about a third of the campaign’s debt.) News reports also noted that Davis Manafort, the business development and consulting practice from which Mr. Davis is on leave, had been giving campaign advice to the Ukrainian prime minister, Viktor F. Yanukovich, a favorite of the Kremlin, whose power Mr. McCain often warns against.
Mr. Davis said in the interview that the 3eDC contract had been thoroughly vetted, with his role fully disclosed, and called any accusation that he had been trying to enrich himself “typical smear stuff.” He said he did not fight back against the accusation when it surfaced over the summer because he did not want the back-and-forth to distract from the campaign.