WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination hit what may be its breaking point on Tuesday, as he accepted the resignations of four top aides while vowing to continue his struggling quest.
The aides were chief strategist John Weaver, campaign manager Terry Nelson, deputy manager Reed Galen and political director Rob Jesmer.
The Arizona Republican wouldn't say why they all quit his campaign, but it's clear from the barrage of sagging poll numbers, weak fundraising and staff layoffs that something has gone seriously wrong with a campaign that just a few months ago was widely regarded as the favorite to win the GOP nomination.
Weaver's departure was especially striking. The Texas strategist was central to McCain's 2000 presidential campaign and molded McCain's image then as an independent-minded straight-talker.
"They remain good and close and loyal friends, and they'll continue to help out in the campaign," an uncharacteristically tense and terse McCain told reporters in the Capitol, repeating the line in response to virtually every question.
Rick Davis, a Republican strategist who had been advising the campaign, will become the new campaign manager, the role he played in 2000.
"If they're not going to come out and announce a new team and a new plan, all they're doing is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster unaligned with any campaign this year.
The resignations come scarcely one week after McCain laid off dozens of campaign staffers across the country after a disappointing second quarter of fundraising. He raised only $11.2 million from April through June, trailing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
So far this year, McCain has raised less than $25 million; Nelson had thought the campaign could raise $100 million for the year. Worse, McCain ended the quarter with only $2 million in cash on hand, a sign that the top-heavy campaign was spending money far too quickly.
Recent polls in key states showed McCain losing ground. Last month he'd sunk to single-digit support in Iowa and South Carolina, two critical early voting states. Even in New Hampshire, where McCain shot to national political prominence in 2000 with a stunning landslide over George W. Bush in the Republican primary, McCain trails Romney in most polls.
McCain's tenuous status in the race underscores the difficulty he faced in transforming his status from maverick outsider to a more establishment role as GOP front-runner with a true conservative record.
Perhaps even more, it shows the difficulty of retaining public support while embracing an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and fighting for an immigration overhaul loathed by much of his party.
The staff shake-up was announced as McCain was speaking on the Senate floor, reiterating his support for the Iraq war after a visit there last week.
"It confirms what the last few weeks told us," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "McCain's strategy for his second attempt has been abandoned. He's starting from scratch, literally. ... All the assumptions that were made were proven to be wrong."
The conservative Republican base always distrusted McCain because of his independent streak. Even in winning seven presidential primaries in 2000, McCain won a majority of GOP voters only in Arizona, his home state.
At the same time, independents who adored McCain in 2000 have soured on him largely because of his support for the war.
"They need to acknowledge a lot of mistakes were made along the way," pollster Fabrizio said. "The first rule is stop digging when you're in a hole. They need to find something that can be uniquely McCain that plays to who he is."
"They've got a long, long hill to climb," Fabrizio said of the McCain team. "It's not impossible, but lots has to play their way."
"Making this adjustment will probably keep Senator McCain in the race a little bit longer and possibly give him a new direction," said Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. "Obviously, he needs a new direction."
Some who know McCain well say it's too early to count him out.
"I think John is still in this thing, no matter what they say," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., comparing McCain's woes to those four years ago of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. "Kerry blew off his whole team, remember? And he won the nomination. Anybody who counts John McCain out is making a mistake."