Down in Memphis at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, there was much grumbling and a bit of laughter at Sen. John McCain‘s attempts to spark a write-in campaign for President George W. Bush during the SRLC’s 2008 presidential straw poll.
McCain had arranged for a number of delegates to participate in the poll, as had Sen. Bill Frist and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In the end, McCain lost to not only them, but also Sen. George Allen … and President Bush.
After five hours of voting and with more than 1,400 ballots cast, on Saturday, Frist won about 37% of the vote, with Romney (14%), Allen (10%) and McCain (4%) following. In fact, Allen tied with Bush, leaving McCain a distant 5th. Allen was the favorite second place ballot choice behind Frist in the straw poll rankings.
Political consultants aren’t sure just what the poll gets Frist, who just six months ago was a nonfactor in the 2008 presidential race given the appearance of poor leadership in the Senate and the continuing Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the sale of stock in the health care company his family operated. Now, Frist appears to be energizing his political operation, and focusing on a presidential run.
McCain’s poor performance can be chalked up to a couple of things, say consultants we talked to, who were hanging around at the Peabody Hotel along with its ducks in the lobby and the delegates. “If anything, McCain can joke that this just continues his exceptional run of luck in the South,” says one consultant, recalling McCain’s flameout in 2000 in South Carolina. “He’s been doing a much better job of getting down here, meeting people, but folks down here know that while he’s been a good soldier for the Bush administration at times, on the big social issues, he’s gone wobbly.”
Second, Frist, Romney, and Allen simply outflanked McCain. On presentation alone, McCain should have defeated Frist, whose speech was in line with previous performances, a bit wooden. McCain, on the other hand, had the crowd with him. But Frist, Romney, and Allen had more bodies in the building, despite McCain’s team having made arrangements for more than 200 delegates.
Finally, while McCain would have liked to have sent a message down there in Frist territory, he will be just as happy with what he is accomplishing across the South, which is fundraising and building a network for the primary season. He is earning high marks for his appearances in South Carolina, raising money there and continuing to build on the network of his political acolyte Sen. Lindsey Graham.
If there was any juicy gossip coming out of the three-day event down in Memphis, it was the unexpected exit of Trent Wisecup, the director of Gov. Mitt Romney’s Commonwealth leadership PAC.
Wisecup is a founding partner with Mike Murphy in the DC Navigators consulting group. Murphy had served as Romney’s communications consultant, but split with Romney to focus on other clients, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Wisecup stayed with Romney.
The scuttlebutt is that Wisecup had had several run-ins with Romney’s chief of staff Beth Myers, who most likely will fill a similar role in Romney’s presidential bid. What’s ironic in all of this is that Wisecup was telling folks over the weekend that he was moving back from Boston to Michigan, which is where Romney supporters believe the governor will open his presidential campaign operation. Why? Romney’s familial and broader political base resides in the state where his father was governor, and where an early Republican primary will be held in 2008.
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