Last week John McCain tried to clear the decks as his presidential effort moved into summer campaign mode. The expected GOP nominee released his long-awaited health records, rejected earlier endorsements by two increasingly controversial pastors, and put out a summary of his multimillionaire wife's tax returns—a move she had resisted. In days prior, he had accepted the resignation of at least five campaign staffers whose lobbying ties put them at odds with the campaign's new conflict-of-interest rule: If you're an active lobbyist, take a hike.
But, still, McCain has been left with a nagging perception problem, and one that Democratic activists continue to hammer in a national ad and daily talking points: How can he run as the maverick antidote to Washington politics-as-usual when his two top staffers—Charlie Black and Rick Davis—are former (emphasis on "former," which exempts them from the campaign's new ethics rule) heavyweight lobbyists?
The campaign says criticism of Black and Davis and calls for them to step aside are "ridiculous." A top campaign official says there has been "zero discussion" about either leaving the campaign. And Black recently told reporters on the campaign trail that questions about his role in McCain's campaign and his former lobbying firm's work on behalf of dictators in the Philippines and Zaire, are "complete inside-the-Beltway nonsense."
Many top GOP strategists agree, though some warn that McCain risks looking hypocritical. "This issue only has resonance in that people want complete change in Washington," says Republican consultant John Feehery. "Any way you are seen as an insider is going to hurt you."
Exactly, says Karen Finney of the Democratic National Committee, which has circulated excerpts of press accounts of Black doing lobbying work at the rear of McCain's Straight Talk Express bus up until he resigned from his lobbying shop in April 2008, and of Davis arranging meetings between McCain and foreign clients while working as a campaign adviser. "Although people may not fully understand all of the things lobbyists do, they do see the entrenchment of lobbyists as part of Washington, as the good-old-boys network," Finney said. "The McCain campaign is mistakenly suggesting that it won't matter to people. But it goes directly against the argument that he's a maverick."
Also agitating for Black to step down is the liberal group MoveOn.org, which has aired an ad on CNN called "Fire Charlie Black," and has plans to air more that will target McCain and lobbyists. And the nonpartisan Campaign Money Watch reports that McCain has more than 115 lobbyists as staff or fundraisers and has targeted Black on its "Fire the Lobbyists" website.
Republicans like pollster Whit Ayers see the Democrats' agitation as a lot of wasted noise. "Who is on the staff of a presidential candidate is of great concern to activists inside the beltway and virtually of no importance to anybody else," Ayers says. "They care about the candidate, values, leadership and experience—not the people around him."
But McCain didn't make things easy for himself, says Ed Rollins, an old GOP hand who worked on Mike Huckabee's presidential run. "This is something he should have done six months ago," Rollins says. "His top two advisers, Charlie Black and Rick Davis, have long histories of not only lobbying but lobbying for some very controversial issues." Now, however, Rollins says, there's little more McCain can do—"He's made a good-faith effort." And Rollins, like many GOP strategists, is not suggesting that the candidate jettison Black or Davis. "They're too important to him," Rollins says. "He's going to just ride it out."
Democratic front-runner Barack Obama, who has refused campaign donations from lobbyists, also has lobbyists on his payroll, and political author and commentator Fred Siegel sees "a considerable amount of gamesmanship in all of this."
"This is obviously bad for McCain in that it disrupts his message," Siegel says. "But no one has shown that any one of these lobbyists has gotten anything from McCain, so I'm not sure it sticks." In Republican circles, he says, the more resonant question has been whether McCain can pull together an organization that can compete in the fall, an effort that has gotten off to a faltering start.
By fall, says Feehery, "there are going to be so many bigger issues in play than Charlie Black, despite MoveOn.Org's best efforts." But Democrats are banking on using Black and Davis to put a chink in McCain's maverick image.