ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Barack Obama is many things - a senator, presidential contender - but what about the founder of a sprawling fast food chain? Well, not exactly, but this week, we've looking at the presidential campaigns as businesses, and on Monday, we compared Obama's campaign to McDonald's.

Well, today, NPR's David Kestenbaum reports on John McCain and how he reinvented his brand when no one was buying?

DAVID KESTENBAUM: The McCain campaign followed a trajectory rare in both business and politics. He did not simply grow from a little start-up into a market leader like Google, he did not collapse like Bear Stearns. He did both. He started big and powerful, nearly went out of business, and then suddenly found himself in the lead again. Sometimes, the turnaround even seemed to surprise McCain. He talked about it on "The Late Show with David Letterman."

(Soundbite of "The Late Show with David Letterman")

Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN (Host, CBS): Tell me what caused it to go down and then what caused it resuscitate? What brought it back?

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Well, first of all, I was probably a lousy candidate.

Mr. LETTERMAN: No. I don't think so.

Sen. McCAIN: Yeah. I think we had some difficulties and we righted the ship, and for a while there, I was reminded of the words of Chairman Mao who said, it's always darkest before its totally black. That's one point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: McCain went on to joke about flying coach class, crammed in the center seat between two heavyset American. He had to take out a loan to pay the bill. The McCain story reminds some people of one legendary corporate tale of riches-to-rag-to-riches. Can you guess?

(Soundbite of music)

KESTENBAUM: Apple computers. David Brady is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of political science in the business school at Stanford. He points out that like McCain, Apple fell on very hard times - the Mac lost sale to the PC, but came back. And McCain has a kind of maverick appeal, just like Apple.

Professor DAVID BRADY (Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution): You know, it's never kind of mainstream in the sense that it doesn't sell as many computers as Dell or HP, but they've got, like, a nice, loyal following.

KESTENBAUM: Brady says McCain and Apple faced similar challenges, finessing being both an outsider and an insider.

Prof. BRADY: You have to be authentic in the sense that you're a guy that can run the whole show. You're not taking the system on now, you're going to run the system.

KESTENBAUM: The Apple comparison has some obvious shortcomings. Apple had a new product - the iPod - and McCain doesn't. And his campaign…

(Soundbite of music)

KESTENBAUM: …uses PCs. The campaign's near-death experience seems to have reshaped the organization. Initially, the campaign had a conventional top-down structure with instructions coming from headquarters, it's now trying be more grassroots. It has appointed 10 regional managers to run things locally.

Joe Trippi watched their recovery from his post as chief advisor to the John Edward's campaign.

Mr. JOE TRIPPI (Campaign Consultant): So on the one hand, you see somebody who, you know, the CEO made the tough decisions and made the right decisions. On the other hand, you know, he waited until the very last second when he's almost dead to make the change. It's like you got a great CEO and a really scary one in the same guy.

KESTENBAUM: McCain is not just a CEO, of course, he is also the product. What product would he be? The campaign didn't give us an answer, but Bruce Newman has one. He's a professor at DePaul University, and edits a journal called Political Marketing.

Professor BRUCE NEWMAN (Marketing, DePaul University; Editor, Journal of Political Marketing): As a product he represents, you know, it might not be the Ferrari on the road, you know, he's just a - he's a solid GM car.

KESTENBAUM: Or maybe, perhaps Blue Ribbon beer. It's been around since the 1800s, but now popular with the hipsters. The product hasn't changed. The world has just shifted around it in such a way that it's suddenly fashionable precisely because it's not trying to be.

Prof. NEWMAN: To me, he looks like another Harry Truman.

KESTENBAUM: How so?

Prof. NEWMAN: Well, because he's straight talking. He's, you know, there was nothing fancy about Harry. You know, the packaging wasn't so great, but what was inside the package seemed to be very solid. And that seems to be the case with Mr. McCain. He just seems to have a way to resonate with people that make them feel like what they see is what they're going to get.

KESTENBAUM: Newman says, if you were a business looking to copy the McCain model thus far, it would be hard to figure out what lessons to take away. McCain won the primary in part because much of his competition - Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson - folded, giving McCain what amounted to an accidental monopoly. McCain acknowledged as much after his victory in the Potomac primaries. He credited his success to what he called that product of opportunity and industry - luck.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

SIEGEL: If the McCain campaign is like a Mac then what products to the other presidential contenders resemble. You can explore the candidates as brands in an audio slideshow at npr.org/elections.

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