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McCain Turns to Hill Backers

Looking to inject fresh energy into his 2008 White House bid, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is asking his Congressional supporters to take their endorsements to a new level by more aggressively tapping into their respective fundraising and political networks on his behalf.

McCain is not only working to reinvigorate his campaign but also to recover from a disappointing fundraising haul for the first quarter of 2007 that left him third in the GOP cash primary. Sources close to the Arizona Senator say his current 27 House and Senate allies are being asked to play a larger role in setting the campaign’s political, organizational and financial direction.

“This campaign is a multifaceted endeavor that involves activities on a number of levels,” said McCain campaign spokesman Danny Diaz. “Certainly, the strong support Sen. McCain enjoys on Capitol Hill increases his ability to communicate a conservative message, engage in political activities across the country and build on a base of financial support as well.”

House and Senate lawmakers are being asked to travel in greater numbers on McCain’s behalf, more vigorously tap into key donor pools to raise money for the campaign and try to build new and increased political support in states through key media outlets. McCain allies are hoping his Hill backers — especially those who represent a younger, right-leaning element of the GOP — will help demonstrate and strengthen his appeal among conservative primary voters.

This past weekend, two junior GOP Senators, John Thune (S.D.) and Richard Burr (N.C.), traveled on McCain’s behalf to Florida and South Carolina, respectively, hitting several stops apiece to serve as surrogates and build additional support for McCain’s 2008 bid. The trips are part of the surge in Member activity that will lead up to and follow McCain’s official campaign kickoff on April 25, sources said.

“This is a new approach, a fresh approach,” Thune said in an interview Monday. “They are now ratcheting things up. The first quarter of the year, people were still sort of reeling from the last campaign, now we’re further into the year and [the] campaign is starting to heat up. This is something they want to do in terms of the organization, the momentum and the energy — getting people out there to do things.”

Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), one of McCain’s top House supporters, said lawmakers are becoming an increasingly more influential piece of the campaign, which he said entered a new phase beginning last week when McCain delivered a major Iraq speech at the Virginia Military Institute. Money aside, McCain also has been looking to regain his political footing on the driving issue of his campaign — support for a successful conclusion to the war.

“They are accelerating and aggressively moving the campaign forward, both on the policy side and in the organizational and fundraising components,” Pickering said. “We are an aggressive part of that.”

Along with other lawmakers, Pickering said his McCain efforts are multifaceted, including helping put together meetings to attract additional Congressional supporters, increasing his fundraising calls, especially to the technology community, and lining up new appearances for McCain in the South.

Also, Pickering is playing host to a major McCain fundraising event with Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in the two lawmakers’ home state on May 31. Lott, one of McCain’s closest Senate allies, is participating in several more upcoming events for his Arizona colleague, including traveling on his behalf to Alabama on May 12 for an annual GOP dinner.

“I think Sen. McCain will be better positioned for the long race than some of the newcomers who may have had an initial burst of support,” Pickering said.

Indeed, McCain’s rivals have had an impressive financial beginning. At the end of the first reporting period on March 31, McCain raised just shy of $13 million, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) with $20.7 million and ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) with $14.7 million. The numbers raised eyebrows in some political circles and led to new questions about the potency of McCain’s bid.

Yet even before the numbers were official on Sunday, McCain already was working to try to make internal changes and tweak his strategy. Not only is McCain trying to secure his standing with a public disillusioned by the Iraq War, but he also is looking to reinvigorate his organization’s financial machine.

Heightening the involvement of his House and Senate allies could be especially helpful for McCain since he’s been struggling to get traction on his war stance, several sources said.

“Surrogates help remind people he’s not alone,” said one Republican Senate aide. “When he’s speaking on an issue like Iraq, he tends to look like he’s standing there by himself. It’s probably smart to have those surrogates and supporters go out there and be active and back him up.”

So far, McCain has stayed extremely competitive in rounding up endorsements from Congress. With 27 House and Senate backers on board, he is in a virtual dead heat with Romney in securing support under the Dome. Still, the veteran Arizona Senator and one-time House Member — who first ran for president in 2000 — initially was slow to add names to his roster.

McCain said earlier this year that he was somewhat delayed in corralling endorsements because he was focusing on Iraq. McCain has been one of President Bush’s leading advocates for the troop surge in the region.

Thune, who spent Saturday and Sunday at events in Florida’s Broward County and Tampa, respectively, said his latest Florida trip is symptomatic of a campaign intent on shifting into high gear. During his latest trip, Thune said he met with local leaders and elected officials to try to win supporters and begin building a Florida political operation for McCain’s candidacy.

“All of this is designed to get the organization in place — grow it, expand it and extend the reach of what he’s trying to do and give him more of a presence in more places,” Thune said. “They are stepping it up.”

Thune and Lott sit at the core of McCain’s Senate team, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), perhaps the Arizona Republican’s closest confidant. Graham, who is leading McCain’s efforts in South Carolina, will travel to New Hampshire during the first week in May trying to rally support and build on the campaign’s efforts in the first primary state.

Beyond those travels, McCain also is turning to his Congressional team to write to news outlets to help make his case as the strongest conservative candidate. In recent weeks, Pickering, Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) have all authored letters to local and national media outlets to tout McCain’s record.

“It allows us to cover more territory and communicate our message with greater frequency and emphasis when we have strong surrogates with a lot of credibility speaking to the issues,” Diaz said.

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