Salena Zito

John Weaver no longer works for the man he helped make into a presidential contender but thinks U.S. Sen. John McCain can have a "Lazarus moment" and breathe new life into his campaign.

"I think he will get another look-at by the American people and by the voters in New Hampshire," Weaver told the Tribune-Review in his first extended interview since his July resignation as senior adviser to the Arizona Republican senator. "The campaign will have to be adept enough to seize upon it."

Weaver won’t say much about his exit. Yet he said he still thinks McCain is the right person for president in 2008, even if he faces an uphill battle for the Republican nomination.

Weaver and Terry Nelson, McCain’s campaign manager and a Bush 2004 campaign veteran, quit the McCain camp simultaneously. Their departures stunned the political world and raised still-nagging doubts about McCain’s ability to win the nomination.

Weaver was more than a key adviser to the senator. He was a close friend who worked on McCain’s 2000 presidential bid. Their history goes back more than a decade.

Traveling with McCain in 1996, when McCain was national chairman for the presidential-nomination bid of U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, Weaver saw McCain's ability to connect with people.

Since then, he had been with McCain in one form or another -- until July. They were so tight that former White House communications director Nicole Wallace still can’t imagine one without the other.

Wallace, now a CBS political contributor, attributed Weaver's departure to "competing forces" within the McCain camp.

Others pin it on a strain between Weaver and Rick Davis, McCain’s one-time campaign chief executive officer and now his campaign manager.

McCain campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker refused requests for comment from Davis and McCain.

"This was over weeks ago," she said, "and the campaign has moved on."

Weaver won’t talk about Davis. He said only that McCain asked him to remain on his staff "but it would not have been the right thing to do."

Instead, he said the campaign’s real troubles began "almost to the day" that the illegal-immigration debate began in the Senate.

Most conservatives disliked McCain’s support for immigration reform. Weaver said McCain "did the honorable thing -- and not the politic thing -- in engaging and leading in that debate," but it hurt his fundraising ability and popularity.

Steve McMahon, a Washington-based Democratic strategist, agreed.

"This is why senators have such a hard time winning the presidency. It takes tough decisions to solve real problems, but tough decisions are seldom the politically popular ones," McMahon said.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.