Ex-adviser to McCain says senator deserves second look from voters

Salena Zito

9/3/2007 12:00:55 AM - 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.

Weaver and Nelson have critics, too. One complaint is that they built McCain’s team too fast and too big.

Said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato: "I can see what they were doing and why. The aura of inevitability is a tough thing to beat -- look at Hillary. The problem is that while Hillary is beloved by 88 percent of Democrats, McCain was never a favorite of a big chunk of Republicans."

Weaver said McCain’s anointing as the GOP frontrunner -- which was "nothing that we sought nor a place we wanted" -- was damaging.

"It was something that was thrust upon the senator a year and a half ago -- and once that happens, you have to conduct yourself in that manner because you can lose that pretty quickly, as we saw.

"Politics is driven by policy," he said. "And the senator, to his lasting credit, chose policy decisions that he believes in ... and in doing so, that has ramifications."

Weaver said critics who claim McCain lost his "Straight-Talk Express" appeal are wrong, because "people like straight talk when they agree with it. People tend to not like frank and straight talk when they disagree with it."

To him, that reflects a key difference between McCain in 2000 and in 2007.

"McCain has been as independent as he has ever been," he says. "When you look at torture, climate change, Iraq and immigration ... three of the four don’t necessarily really set well with Republican primary voters."

Weaver said McCain is still the same person speaking his mind, but the political dynamics are different.

The solution, he said, "is to make it more about the character of the man vs. the specific policy position."