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John McCain works up two strategies for the fall

April 18, 2008 |  3:20 pm

Senior officials at John McCain's campaign say they have devised two separate strategies for the general election, depending on whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination.

"We will be prepared whenever the Democratic nominee for president emerges," said Charles Black, McCain's top strategist, adding that it doesn't matter who wins the primary. "We have no preference," Black said. "I'm not sure that one is easier than the other."

Campaign officials said that they feel confident that McCain will have the money he needs to compete, and they said he would reserve some of his policy proposals for the fall, when voters start paying closer attention.

But they acknowledged that there are serious obstacles for a Republican candidate with 81% of voters saying the nation is on the wrong track, with the president's approval ratings at an all-time low and with the economy in or near a recession.

"These are hurdles we have to get over," said Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager.

Davis pointed out, however, that though the generic Republican ballot does poorly...

with voters, McCain outperforms it by 18% and his approval ratings are higher than either Obama's or Clinton's.

When asked about whether McCain's age will also be an obstacle, Mark Salter, McCain's longtime chief of staff, cited the senator's heavy campaign schedule as evidence likely to be persuasive to voters.

"Senator Obama often appears exhausted by his schedule and we do twice the number of events and [McCain] always wants to do more," Salter said.

Next week, McCain will tour some of the poorest areas of the country, including the Black Belt of Alabama, Appalachia and Louisiana. Steve Schmidt, who oversees McCain's message, said that by visiting these areas, McCain is sending a larger message to voters nationwide: "With McCain there will be action, not talk," he said. "When he is president, there will be no forgotten and left-behind parts of the country."

That message, Davis said, will have the money behind it to reach voters. Currently, the campaign has $10 million in cash on hand, no debt, and this week hit 200,000 individual donors to the campaign.

The McCain campaign is coordinating its resources and fundraising with the Republican National Committee, establishing a victory leadership fund that will allow donors to write checks up to $70,000. That money would go in part to the campaign, in part to the RNC as well as to four state parties -- Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Mexico and Colorado.

Still, the McCain campaign is much smaller than either of the Democrats' campaigns, although they recently tripled the size of their communications shop and doubled their speech-writing team from one to two people.

"We have always prided ourselves on getting more done with less," Davis said.

-- Jill Zuckman

Jill Zuckman wrote this for The Swamp blog for the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau.