McCain Relies on a Tight-Knit Circle of Confidants to Guide His Campaign

Known for being impulsive, the Republican nominee has encouraged a free-wheeling spirit on his team.

Top speechwriter Mark Salter (left) and strategist Charles Black (right) with McCain on his plane.

Top speechwriter Mark Salter (left) and strategist Charles Black (right) with McCain on his plane.

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John McCain the candidate has always relished the company of friends, and his patented campaign bus tours have famously had the feel of a rolling party of buddies—some in the roles of actual campaign advisers.

Though that freewheeling style has been reined in during this tough presidential campaign, and McCain's easy way with the media has shown signs of a serious souring, the boys-on-the-bus model is how McCain has always liked to roll. Those who have known him for a long time say that it reflects the Arizona senator's preference for relying on a tightknit group of trusted intimates and his penchant for making decisions based on gut instincts.

His brain trust includes not only intensely loyal Senate colleagues like Joseph Lieberman but a variety of yarn-spinners, joke-tellers, and tough, irreverent military veterans who shared with McCain his life's defining experience—wartime imprisonment and abuse in Vietnam.

Unlike most politicians and candidates, McCain has avoided surrounding himself with layered ranks of political insiders, says his longtime fellow Arizona senator, John Kyl. "He's always had a small group around him, and people from a lot of interesting groups," says Kyl, a Republican. "And he's always very open to getting advice from them."

That doesn't mean McCain doesn't call on old Washington hands to help run his show. Veteran lobbyists Charles Black and Rick Davis, both wise in the ways of big money and Republican strategy, have been longtime advisers and run his current campaign along with Steve Schmidt, a Karl Rove protégé put in charge over the summer to bring discipline to a flailing effort.

They are the professionals, and Schmidt has been key to imposing order on McCain's more natural, off-the-cuff style. But going into the fall, McCain—who shocked the establishment by choosing largely unknown Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate—will have to pull back the curtain on how he makes his decisions so voters can trust his judgment, say GOP strategists.

"He has to show that his gut is validated by information—that he's attracting first-class, competent people to help him," says one prominent Republican strategist. "He has to show that he's like Ronald Reagan—that his decisions are based on core principals and pragmatism."

Mark Salter. If many Americans see McCain as a flawed hero, chastened by an awareness of his shortcomings but still best qualified, by experience and character, to serve his country as its president and commander in chief, the man most responsible for projecting the image is a down-to-earth guy named Mark Salter.

Born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1955, the son of a decorated World War II and Korean War veteran, Salter spent four years repairing railroad tracks before attending college and eventually landing a job with U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. McCain hired him as a legislative aide in 1988, but Salter, who shared many of his boss's literary tastes (including Irish writer William Trevor), quickly became much more.

With an almost uncanny ability to channel McCain's voice, even while giving it greater rhetorical loft and resonance, he became the senator's first speechwriter and later his chief of staff. Perhaps partly out of fascination with his own father's reluctance to discuss his war years, Salter also became McCain's secret-sharer, able to draw out and put into words the details and deeper influence of the senator's military past, from his struggles to live up to his Navy admiral forefathers to his years as a POW in Hanoi. Set down in the 1999 book Faith of My Fathers, which Salter wrote with McCain, that story has become the emotional heart of McCain's image. To the degree that presidential campaigns are more about personalities than issues, Salter is, in military terms, McCain's indispensable force-multiplier.

If McCain were to win, Salter would likely remain his counselor and speechwriter.

Charles Black. The top strategist in McCain's presidential run, Charles Black is a courtly southerner renowned as a tough-as-nails political operative who has played key roles in presidential campaigns for decades.