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McCain Shuffles Deck

Reopens PAC, Drops Nonprofit

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has taken a pair of recent steps that could help lay the groundwork for a White House bid in 2008, severing his official ties with a nonprofit reform group and restarting his political action committee.

While his Straight Talk America PAC gives him a renewed political platform, McCain also has formally stepped down from the board of the Reform Institute, a group he formed with his top strategists to push his signature issue of campaign ethics.

McCain said Wednesday that the “negative publicity” that came earlier this spring from his association with the institute and the fact that its fundraising was conducted by his long-time adviser, Rick Davis, prompted him to step down from the 501(c)3 group.

“I’m no longer associated with it. I’m no longer on the advisory board,” he said.

This follows stories in March in The Associated Press and The New York Times that outlined how Davis served as the top staffer for the Reform Institute while also lobbying on behalf of clients who had interests before the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee when McCain chaired the panel. In one case, Davis solicited a pair of $100,000 donations for the Reform Institute from Cablevision one week after the company’s chief executive testified before Commerce on a provision McCain was actively supporting.

By cutting his own ties from the institute — which was formed in the wake of his 2000 campaign and his successful 2002 effort to overhaul federal campaign laws — McCain wants to inoculate himself from questions about whether he has held himself to the same standard as others.

In addition, Davis said Wednesday he had dropped his title of Reform Institute president and now serves the group on a voluntary basis. He had been earning $110,000 a year.

The nexus of what can be called McCain Inc., is based on Union Street in Old Towne, inside the office building that is home to Davis Manafort, his adviser’s lobbying firm.

McCain’s re-election committee, Friends of John McCain, and Straight Talk America are housed in that same building, as is the Reform Institute.

While Davis’ official role with the PAC is still unclear, McCain’s leading fundraiser, Carla Eudy, is expected to continue in that role for Straight Talk. She is also the top money person for the Reform Institute.

Other top advisers from the 2000 campaign remain in McCain’s orbit, including political strategist John Weaver and Michael Dennehy, who ran the New Hampshire primary operation for the Senator.

Davis said the pieces of McCain’s political puzzle are about to outgrow their offices in Old Towne. “I suspect we’re going to try to move all that stuff out,” he said.

McCain said Wednesday that he has no immediate political travels ahead of him, pointing to trips over August to Canada and Alaska regarding environmental policy and one to Colorado to be honored by the Aspen Institute.

Unlike his potential rivals for the 2008 GOP nomination — particularly Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) — McCain has no trips to battleground states such as New Hampshire on the horizon. Any decision on 2008, he has said, is a ways off.

But Straight Talk will allow him to begin the political process of collecting chits by making donations to help candidates and underwriting travel to stump for them on the campaign trail.

“We’re going to raise some money for candidates and go around to campaign for them,” McCain said.

Straight Talk, formed immediately after his 2000 campaign collapsed, quickly became one of the largest PACs among Members of Congress. It raised $3 million in its first 15 months of existence.

But, in order to hold himself to a higher standard, McCain shuttered Straight Talk in early 2003 as he began to run for re-election, deeming it inappropriate to maintain two political committees as he was about to face Arizona’s voters last November. (Most lawmakers continue to raise money for both their re-election committee and PAC at the same time, given that the leadership PAC can have no direct involvement in the lawmaker’s campaign.)

McCain’s advisers had been considering opening another PAC for several months now, but had also decided that the Senator’s high name recognition and wide popularity gave him more time to decide on how to proceed. On July 15, the PAC reopened, according to paperwork filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The reopening is still very much in the earliest stages of development.

There is no Web site yet for the PAC — punch in straighttalk and viewers and guided to the Friends of John McCain Web site — and Straight Talk’s phone number is the same as his campaign committee.

McCain said he had no fundraising events planned in the near term, but even a simple e-mail or letter to supporters is sure to bring in a surge of cash for the PAC: In one six-month span in 2001, Straight Talk raised $600,000 in donations of less than $200, the small-dollar gifts that usually come over the Internet or through direct-mail pitches.