McCain focus: `harness the bounce'

New Hampshire win spurs a torrent of donors, volunteers

February 08, 2000|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- This, John McCain's campaign aides excitedly insist, is what political campaigns are supposed to look like: phones ringing off the hook, volunteers walking in off the street eager to do anything, staffers working round the clock fueled by hot dogs, doughnuts and the adrenalin that comes from backing the candidate of the moment.

And this is exactly what the red-hot McCain campaign has looked like since last week's New Hampshire primary, since the insurgent Republican candidate knocked George W. Bush off what was once assumed to be an immovable front-runner perch, since everything has changed.

"We've been stunned by the response," says campaign spokeswoman Nancy Ives, whose desk is piled high with phone messages.

Since McCain's New Hampshire triumph, $2.1 million has come into the campaign over the Internet alone, compared with $1.5 million in total Internet contributions in the previous nine months.

The campaign is so swamped with media interest -- the Arizona senator is on the cover of all three news weeklies this week -- that the press office now juggles 200 calls an hour, many from foreign newspapers and TV.

And new volunteers such as Betty Wallace, a Bethesda retiree who drove over to McCain's headquarters here as soon as she dug her car out of the snow last week, have descended upon the campaign to do everything from stuff envelopes to take out the trash.

"I figured they'd be swamped," says Wallace, who has volunteered on Republican presidential campaigns since the Eisenhower days. "There's no chit-chat here. It's a concentrated effort."

Across the country, 23,000 volunteers have signed up via the Internet since New Hampshire.

"What we're trying to do is take virtual people and turn them into real people on the ground," says Max Fose, the campaign's 28-year-old Web site manager.

At campaign headquarters, a ramshackle former printing plant where Dunkin Donuts boxes are as abundant as computers and the candidate's spirited younger brother, Joe McCain, keeps things lively ("Remember, that's M-C-capital C," he jokes to a reporter), the operation is in overdrive.

Staffers say they haven't come down from last week's high, especially since polls show McCain cutting into Bush's lead in states like South Carolina, which holds its primary on Feb. 19, and all-important California.

"It's crazy. It's wild. It is really wild," says McCain's finance director, Carla Eudy. "I've been involved in politics since 1980, and I've never seen anything like it."

The campaign is receiving three times the daily mail it received before New Hampshire, and 7,000 e-mail messages have arrived since then, many saying, "I've never voted for a Republican before."

Former McCain skeptics and even critics, such as Jim Nicholson, the Republican national chairman, have called with congratulations.

But as the campaign grapples with its success -- working to upgrade the phone system and Internet server, find venues large enough for standing-room-only crowds the candidate is now attracting and decide the best use for new volunteers -- it is also trying to make sure McCain is more than a one-state wonder.

"The McCain campaign is like an Internet stock," says Stuart Stevens, a media adviser to Bush. "There's been a big run-up, but I suspect the run-down in the other direction will be equally swift."

Yesterday, McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, and a key adviser, former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber, started their day with a strategy session on how to prevent such a run-down -- how to, as Weber says, "harness this bounce" rather than squander it as some New Hampshire victors have in the past.

"It's a huge focus of the campaign," Weber says. "For months and months and months we've been talking about the challenge we faced organizationally if we won the first building block. The key is signing people up and putting them to work as quickly as we can to deepen their commitment."

The campaign is taking a lesson from the 1984 presidential campaign of Democrat Gary Hart who, much like McCain, became an overnight sensation after an upset victory in New Hampshire over former Vice President Walter Mondale. After much fanfare, Hart's campaign fizzled, especially after Mondale, backed by the Democratic establishment, went on the attack, asking "Where's the beef?" of Hart's "new ideas."

"You're three or four people traveling in a van one day and on a 400-seat aircraft the next," Hart's '84 political director, Billy Shore, recalls of the New Hampshire victory. "We weren't prepared for it. Intellectually we were prepared, but organizationally we weren't."

McCain staffers say their campaign is prepared, having been working to build a grass-roots operation with state chairs in all 50 states and a "patriots network" of veterans and military people in all 50 states.

"We're well-positioned," Eudy says. "We didn't wake up Wednesday morning and say, `Now what do we do?' "

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