Members Map Coordination

Posted August 1, 2008 at 5:27pm

Eyeing their last chance for face time with Members for several weeks, Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) crammed in private sessions with House and Senate lawmakers last week to finalize strategies and enlist their help before officially becoming the presidential nominees.

Obama used the runup to the August break to make his first appearance before the House Democratic Caucus, while two of his top strategists, Jim Margolis and Joel Benenson, sat down across the Hill with lawmakers at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. McCain dispatched several of his senior aides to separately assemble with GOP Senate and House lawmakers to hatch pre-recess plans.

Obama’s and McCain’s campaigns focused last week’s sit-downs with lawmakers on honing a unified party message for the next three or four weeks, traditionally a slow political period as summer winds down. Atop the agenda for both presidential hopefuls were the voter-magnet topics of energy and the economy, with the campaigns encouraging Members to talk up the aspects of those issues mirroring the candidates, to participate in campaign events in their home states, to increase their media appearances nationally and locally, and to volunteer for the campaigns’ rapid-response efforts to beat back attacks.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Majority Whip and Obama’s top Congressional ally, said Friday that heading into August, he “doesn’t think there’s ever been a closer relationship” between the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee and lawmakers. Durbin, who was about to board a plane for Florida to campaign with his Illinois colleague, said the waning days of the session have been used to further encourage party unity and urge participation on Obama’s behalf — such as getting lawmakers involved in his rapid-response operation.

Durbin said getting Members to use the August break to help out hasn’t been a tall order: “We want to win. We want him to win. So we’re going to do everything we can to make that happen.”

The McCain campaign was ramping up its Member outreach as the August recess loomed, with one source close to the organization saying that McCain was aware that he wouldn’t have the same access to lawmakers until the Republican convention begins on Sept. 1. This source said that in two separate lawmaker meetings last week, McCain’s Campaign Manager Rick Davis, Economic Adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Congressional Liaison John Green privately sought to coordinate the party’s message on the economy and energy and discuss how best to work together in the coming weeks.

“It’s all about the game plan for the football game,” the McCain source described. “They want to know what it is, and we want to get their feedback. We want to make sure everyone is on the same message.”

In the House, a cadre of early McCain supporters has been meeting to discuss strategy on a semi-regular basis since last summer. After McCain sewed up the nomination, that group expanded to include House Republicans from every region of the country, with its participants now numbering about 20. The campaign now meets with those Members and with a group of between 12 and 20 GOP Senators every other week, including last week.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who helped start the McCain meetings a year ago, said the mission is two-fold: to offer the campaign advice on fundraising, strategy and scheduling, and to serve as a conduit to the campaign for their colleagues in the Republican Conference.

“We’re listeners, trying to keep the wheels on the train,” he said.

In the coming weeks, Republican lawmakers will focus on gas prices and energy. Lawmakers will join McCain in pressing for more oil production and conservation efforts, while simultaneously poking fun at Obama’s “yes we can” campaign trademark and by charging that the Democratic Party is all about “no we can’t.”

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said that while his home-state already is pro-McCain and doesn’t need much of a boost there, Republican lawmakers can use the August break to create an echo chamber on his platform and priorities. Asked what kind of influence Members can have, Gregg said: “Everyone has a pool into which they can drop a little pebble, and there are waves from that. I think it can be very effective.”

Similarly, Democrats were preparing to implement their August road map. Obama met with House Democrats last week, while also dispatching a senior-level team to huddle with Senators to help put the finishing touches on the four-week communications strategy designed to carry the Illinois Democrat to the convention in Denver on Aug. 25. Two weeks ago, Obama’s campaign launched daily calls with House and Senate Democratic leadership.

Senior Democrats familiar with those talks say lawmakers’ roles will be numerous and will kick off in earnest next week as they look to offer a drumbeat to Obama’s weeklong focus on energy and gas prices. One aide said to expect Obama to be “much more forceful on energy” with Congressional Democrats backing up his message assault by holding roundtable discussions and news conferences tying McCain to a third Bush term, accusing Republicans of blocking passage of legislation to lower gas prices and supporting Big Oil.

“An echo chamber is an echo chamber,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said, adding that, “The more we have people out there hitting the same themes,” the more beneficial it is to the party.

Congressional Democrats will put special emphasis over the next three weeks on serving as surrogates for Obama, helping him amplify his positions and counterattacks from McCain or his allies. One Democratic Senate source reminded that it was just four years ago this summer when then-presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) suffered a devastating blow to his campaign when it waited too long to respond to attack ads by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

“That’s called lessons learned,” the Senate Democrat said.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) acknowledged the heightened premium Obama has been placing recently on lawmaker involvement in his candidacy, saying Senate Democrats understand the backup player role they can play in promoting his message and platform in their states. Casey added that Senators and House Members will spend the coming weeks touting his candidacy and shoring up his credibility with an electorate that is “still getting to know him.”

Casey conceded that even with the increased Congressional coordination, there will be some difficulty breaking through to voters during the quiet days of summer. “It is limited because August is a particularly tough time. Most people don’t start thinking about their election choices until after Labor Day, but it’s important that as Democrats, not to leave our guard down.

“Republicans have been very good at defining Democrats in a way that’s unfair and inaccurate — but also effective.”

Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.