WASHINGTON — Reeling from another quarter of weak fundraising, Sen. John McCain slashed his staff Monday and will refocus his presidential campaign exclusively on early-voting states, where aides hope that his retail political skills can overcome his financial straits.
The Arizona Republican raised $11.2 million in the second quarter and has just $2 million in cash on hand. That tally followed a disappointing first quarter, when McCain raised $13.6 million, after which he shuffled his finance team and vowed to do better.
The other top Republican candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, haven't yet announced their second-quarter numbers.
It's been a rough year for McCain, who began 2007 as the front-runner for the nomination. His embrace of the war in Iraq hurt him with independent voters. He failed to persuade conservatives, who dominate the Republican nominating process, that he really is one of them; most recently, his support of a failed immigration bill that conservatives opposed highlighted his problem with the party's base. All those factors impeded his fundraising.
"His status as a top-tier candidate is significantly threatened," said Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. "He's unable to finance a national campaign. ... He's going to have to put all his efforts in the first couple of states and hope he can swing them his way."
Aides said McCain would focus on Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, three states whose early votes traditionally have played huge roles in determining party nominations. McCain also will campaign in Nevada, adjacent to his home state, which has scheduled a caucus for Jan. 19, between Iowa on Jan. 14 and New Hampshire on Jan. 22.
It's a risky strategy: The front-loaded schedule, with more than 20 other states holding primaries Feb. 5, means there won't be much time to capitalize on early success.
Plus, recent Mason-Dixon polls found McCain with only single-digit support in Iowa and South Carolina. He won the New Hampshire primary in 2000.
"He has a lot of the same problems here that he has in the rest of the country," Squire said. McCain's decision to skip an influential straw poll in Iowa in August "doesn't help him," Squire said. "And at this point, he needs all the help he can get."
"The fact is, it's a one-state strategy," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center. "He's got to count on the strength he showed in New Hampshire in 2000 returning. If he has a strong finish or a victory in New Hampshire, he's still in the game."
The downsized focus was necessitated by weak fundraising, as were the layoffs: "We confronted reality and we dealt with it in the best way that we could so that we could move forward with this campaign," campaign manager Terry Nelson said.
A campaign official didn't dispute a report that 50 staffers or more were laid off. Nelson said the cuts affected every department. Additionally, top aides will take pay cuts; Nelson said he'd work for free for "a few months."
Part of the problem was that aides thought they could raise $100 million this year and staffed the campaign accordingly. At the year's halfway point, they've raised less than $25 million.
The campaign is "seriously considering" accepting as much as $6 million in federal matching money to remain viable, Nelson said. Most well-financed campaigns decline such funding because of the spending limitations that come with it.
McCain is visiting Iraq this week. He'll resume campaigning next week with scheduled visits to Iowa and New Hampshire.