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McCain Adviser: Strategy Was Simply Stay In Game

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McCain Adviser: Strategy Was Simply Stay In Game

Election 2008

McCain Adviser: Strategy Was Simply Stay In Game

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Senator John McCain swept the so-called Potomac Primaries last night winning Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. It's a striking contrast to last summer, when John McCain's presidential campaign was on life support. He had no money, and staffers were leaving in droves.

Among the few advisers who stayed — and helped orchestrate the senator's resurgence — is the same man who helped George W. Bush crush McCain's first presidential campaign back in 2000. That's senior adviser Mark McKinnon. And he joins me now from Austin, Texas.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. MARK McKINNON (Senior Adviser, McCain Campaign): Thanks. Glad to be here.

NORRIS: I would like a code assessment of what happened last night. John McCain swept the Potomac primaries, but it sounds like he still has some explaining to do as to how he's actually going to reach out to conservatives.

Mr. McKINNON: Well, I - there's a bit of mythology, Michele, that the reality is that McCain is doing very well with conservatives, did incredibly well last night, sweeping all three. Mike Huckabee is a Baptist preacher so he's going to do well, and we - he's a great candidate. But the fact is that George Bush, at this point in the primary in 2000 was not getting as many Republicans as John McCain is getting. So we'll go just as long as Governor Huckabee wants to go, as long as he wants to run it out.

NORRIS: I want you to do me a favor, if you could. Take me back the summer when so many journalists - and I should say including NPR - were almost writing off John McCain, writing his political obituary at that moment. You stayed with him. What was his mindset in that moment?

Mr. McKINNON: Well, John McCain is one tough guy; and he's a survivor. And this whole primary process is about humiliating people and beating them down and stripping them naked, and that's what it did to John McCain. But he's been through tougher times. And he - we felt and he felt that if he could just survive, if he could just stay in the game and he was flying coach, carrying his bags, I mean the whole thing was run on spit and glue.

But we believed that people still liked and admired John McCain, they just thought he was no longer a viable candidate. So the whole strategy was literally as simple as just saying, stay in the game and then by that time, people would have looked at the other candidates and realized that John McCain is really best suited to be president. And say, well, look at this, surprise, he's still here. And we thought it could break lighting-fast to John McCain and move wholesale, and that's exactly what happened.

NORRIS: Now, Senator Obama has done very well with independents. He talks about the Obamacans - I guess, the Republicans who are crossing over to support him and whispering in his ear. Does that create a particular challenge for John McCain, because that seems to cut into John McCain's base?

Mr. McKINNON: Well, I think that John McCain will also cut into natural Democratic base as well as he's shown in the past. He's got great potential to draw in independents because he's done it before. But it depends on who he's facing in the general election scenario. But if it's McCain and Obama, then he's got a sort of foreign policy experience credential that will help with other demographic groups, as well.

NORRIS: You know, you told Cox Newspapers last summer - and you repeated this in a Texas Monthly interview that will be published soon - that you would, quote, "might work in the general election if Barack Obama is the opponent on the Democratic side."

Mr. McKINNON: Well, let me - that's referring to confidential communication that I had with the McCain campaign when I came aboard. And I don't really want to say much more about that except to say that under any circumstances, no matter who the nominee is, I will be supporting 100 percent John McCain.

NORRIS: But - I just want to clarify because this is again been repeated that you wouldn't work in the general election, you should be supporting him on the sidelines.

Mr. McKINNON: I would be supporting from the sidelines.

NORRIS: Huh. I'm curious - I just have to ask, why you would sit this out if you have such strong feelings for John McCain if Barack Obama was the opponent. What is it that you're concerned about?

Mr. McKINNON: Well, I met Barack Obama. I read his book. I like him a great deal. I disagree with him on very fundamental issues. But I think, as I said, I think it'd be great race for the country. And would simply be uncomfortable being in a campaign that would be inevitably attacking Barack Obama. I just - I don't think - it'd be uncomfortable for me and I think it'd be bad for the McCain campaign.

NORRIS: Mark McKinnon, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. McKINNON: Glad to join you.

NORRIS: Mark McKinnon is a senior adviser to Senator John McCain presidential campaign. Before joining John McCain's campaign, he was the media and advertising director for President George W. Bush's two presidential campaigns.

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