How Mccain Does It

John McCain's feisty 88-year-old mother, Roberta, stood at the bar last week at a fashionable Washington book-signing party and, between bites of an hors d'oeuvre, declared that her son's presidential campaign is a "miracle." She said she had never seen any signs of political ambition in the boy as he grew up. "John has no side," she went on, using an old upper-class expression for lack of pretense. "He doesn't need money or to be famous or powerful." His actions were sometimes unpredictable, she went on, but they were always "honorable."

Many voters share Mother McCain's view. They see the former naval hero as a refreshing exception to the poll-driven posturing of politics. But because McCain has a code of honor and can be wittily self- effacing does not mean that he is guileless. Like most great charmers in public life, his offhand manner is studied. Just as Winston Churchill was said to have rehearsed his extemporaneous remarks, McCain's gift is to appear spontaneous while repeating the same lines over and over. McCain's campaign has an improvised feel, as if McCain is out there on his own, winging it on the Straight Talk Express. Actually, his campaign strategy evolved slowly, built on the senator's instinct and experience, but also on the advice of hired guns who have served in many other presidential campaigns. His closest advisers are some of the shrewdest old hands in Washington. They see his insurgency less as a moral crusade than as a brilliant piece of political theater. It is not an accident that McCain's most frequently invoked heroes, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, were two of the greatest actors in American politics.

About two years ago McCain began talking to Ken Duberstein, Reagan's last White House chief of staff and a close friend of Gen. Colin Powell's. McCain wanted to know: was Powell thinking of running? Left unstated was the reality that there wasn't room for two American heroes in the presidential race. Duberstein assured McCain that Powell would stay out of the campaign, and the two men began talking about "upping McCain's profile," says Duberstein. McCain, who had a book coming out about his own military career, had watched with fascination as Powell ran a book tour in 1995 that resembled a coronation parade. "How did Colin do it?" McCain wanted to know. The senator also quizzed Duberstein about President Reagan. How had the Gipper won over so many Democrats as well as Republicans? Duberstein offered contacts (his corporate clients include Goldman Sachs and General Motors) as well as sage advice. He began to quietly expose McCain to corporate bigwigs (and potential campaign donors), hosting a breakfast for 25 business leaders with Henry Kissinger in New York that December.

McCain was not free to take a flier on the presidency. Before announcing his candidacy, the twice-married senator had to win over his own "incredibly reluctant" wife, McCain recalled to NEWSWEEK. On a trip to the Maldive Islands after the '98 elections, he managed to persuade Cindy McCain. "I told her that when I'm about to retire, that I don't want to look back and say, 'I really wish I had tried it'." Still, she wanted to hear from the professionals. At a meeting at McCain's office in December, Cindy looked at his assembled advisers and demanded, "You look me in the eye and tell me this is real--John has a chance."

The brain trust that day was a who's who of veteran political players. It included Greg Stevens, who had produced the ads for Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign; John Weaver, who had run Sen. Phil Gramm's well-financed but unsuccessful 1996 bid; Gramm's veteran pollster, Bill McInturff; Vin Weber, a former congressman who lobbies McCain's committee for big corporations like AT&T, and Duberstein. McInturff was able to tell Cindy that her husband's name recognition was in the single digits, but when voters were asked about a candidate with a life story that resembled McCain's--a former POW who spent five years in the Hanoi Hilton--the numbers shot up. The bad news was that McCain's main cause--campaign-finance reform--did not inspire voters. Too much of a "process" issue, said the pros.

McCain understood that his real appeal had to be his personal story. In May 1999, he won a Profiles in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library for pushing campaign-finance reform. While he was at the library, McCain spent long hours watching films of the young JFK, as a young hero in a naval uniform and as president, deftly handling reporters at press conferences. The senator also befriended JFK Jr., who was one of the prize judges. In his last editorial in George magazine before he died last summer, JFK Jr. compared McCain to the hero of "Star Wars." McCain's aides say it's a coincidence, but these days McCain likens himself to Luke Skywalker trying to fight free of the Death Star (a.k.a. the web of special interests on Capitol Hill).

Despite his calls for reform, McCain knew he would be able to raise plenty of money as a Washington insider. Of his first 1,900 contributors, more than half were businessmen or lobbyists with interests before the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain chairs. To get his story out, the senator needed to exploit another branch of the Washington establishment, the press. McCain has long nurtured media moguls and top reporters. When he moved to Arizona and launched his political career in the early '80s, one of his first friends was the then publisher of the powerful Arizona Republic, Duke Tully. McCain asked Tully to be the godfather of one of his children. In Washington, McCain was famous for quickly returning reporters' phone calls. McCain had traveled with Bob Dole in the 1996 race. "I saw a lot of things that, frankly, I could have done better." One was to talk to reporters, who were for the most part kept away from Dole.

From the start of his own presidential campaign, McCain began seriously warming up the pundits. His communications director, Dan Schnur, recalled The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd's tagging along with McCain last August. As a veteran press handler, Schnur was used to protecting his candidates from the likes of the acerbic Dowd, but as Schnur watched McCain and Dowd jousting and laughing, he realized there was no point. Seeing that McCain was more comfortable with reporters than pols, Schnur observed, "That's the day I realized he'd rather hang around with them than us."

McCain has run an insurgent's campaign in part because he had no choice. He could not compete with Bush for endorsements, so why try? McCain cast about for other models, even sending a scout to examine how Jesse Ventura had mounted his Reform Party insurgency in Minnesota in 1998. The McCain insurrection took shape partly in the laptop computer of Mike Murphy, a veteran hardball media wizard. Murphy formally signed on with McCain when his first horse, Lamar Alexander, collapsed in August 1999. A wiseacre who has privately mocked the GOP as "the Stupid Party," Murphy told McCain he had seen too many campaigns blow their money on bloated staffs. The key was to be nimble. Murphy suggested that McCain simply skip the Iowa caucuses. The senator was sure to lose to Bush and, as Murphy put it, "a Christian" (meaning a candidate backed by the religious right). In a confidential memo dated May 31, 1999, obtained by NEWSWEEK, Murphy emphasized McCain's dependence on free and friendly media: "We cannot be seen by our angels in the press corps as a loser out of Iowa," he warned.

McCain liked Murphy's guerrilla tactics. But he was still having trouble answering the most basic question: why was he running for president? He stumbled until a woman in San Francisco asked him how he would like his presidency to be remembered. "I want to inspire a generation of Americans to a cause greater than their own self-interest," said McCain. He also found a way to sell campaign-finance reform. He would tell voters that it was impossible to cut taxes or trim wasteful spending until the power of the "special interests" was cut back.

McCain had another problem. His mind jumps about, and he dislikes repeating himself. "We had a hard time getting him to say anything over again, except for those damn jokes," said speechwriter Mark Salter. To keep himself on track, McCain summoned his powers of endurance. "I thought I could outwork most anybody else," he told NEWSWEEK. "I can go for a long, long time. The Bush people were measuring the drapes in the White House." McCain made himself do 114 straight town meetings in New Hampshire, answering the same questions over and over again. "He became more disciplined," said Salter.

The candidate's greatest challenge has been how to deal with Bush's post-New Hampshire attacks. McCain's initial response perfectly illustrates his campaign's mix of expediency and high-mindedness. McCain's campaign manager, lobbyist Rick Davis, is an old protege of the master of negative campaigning, the late Lee Atwater. On Feb. 10, Davis had flown to South Carolina with ads attacking Bush for failing to apologize for a low-blow attack on McCain's record with veterans. "We were ready to rip the guy's face off," says Davis. But Murphy, no stranger to negative ads, saw that McCain could not hope to win a slugfest with the better-financed Bush. Sen. Chuck Hagel, a McCain ally, was already warning that McCain's ad comparing Bush to Clinton was "over the line." John Weaver, McCain's political director, suggested a political "jiujitsu"--go positive and "move their weight against them."

At that point, McCain himself entered the debate. He had been upset during a town meeting that morning when a mother described how her 14-year-old son--a Boy Scout--broke into tears after hearing an anti-McCain telephone canvasser describe the candidate as a "liar" and a "cheat." McCain's verdict: no more negative ads. "I don't want to wake up after a victory and feel dirty," he told his strategists. Davis was disappointed. If only he had shown McCain the ads, he believed, the senator would have gone for them. "McCain would have probably said, 'Yeah, let's rip the guy's face off'," said Davis. "You know, he's like the rest of us." But different enough from the average pol to seem at once human and heroic.