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McCain's Volunteer Army

By Juliet Eilperin
MIAMI -- Just before Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took the stage here tonight his state chairman Phil Handy -- beer in hand -- looked around in amazement.

"We didn't have a campaign here two weeks ago," he said. "It's unbelievable."

McCain's campaign did have paid staff here in the spring of 2007: They were laid off in May, when the senator's campaign appeared to be on the brink of collapse. They hired "a handful" of people after McCain's Jan. 19 win in South Carolina, Handy said, but they mainly relied on an "all-volunteer army" to propel their candidate to victory.

To a large extent McCain relied on Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who boasts a formidable team. As soon as the governor endorsed McCain on Saturday night, according to the governor's spokeswoman Vivian Myrtetus, "We flipped the switch on the Crist machine."

Myrtetus, Crist's political director Arlene DiBenigno and members Crist's political strategy team focused their attention on the campaign. They reached out to grass-roots allies such as Pasco County GOP chairman Bill Bunting, a gun-rights advocate who endorsed McCain on Monday and e-mailed the news to 90,000 of his supporters. They contacted all of the governor's county chairs and co-chairs, helped run phone banks targeting South Florida, Tampa and Orlando, reached out to 24 Cuban American coalitions and put surrogates on Spanish-language radio in South Florida.

By primary day, Handy said, the McCain campaign boasted at least 1,000 volunteers. Through get-out-the-vote efforts and earned media coverage, he said, "we were able to show who he really was."

McCain, for his part, doesn't really indulge in lengthy discussions about campaign tactics. In an interview Friday on his Straight Talk Express, McCain said he was reluctant to hazard a guess at how he had managed to resuscitate his campaign, or what it would portend for his chances of winning the nomination.

"I'd love to tell you I know all the dynamics here. I really don't," he told reporters. "We all know my comeback story, but we also saw Governor Huckabee really pop up, and then we saw a certain recession there. We saw Guiliani with a consistent 20-point lead for months and months. Look, I'm just not smart enough to figure a lot of this out. My ego and oh, 'We were wonderful, and we did it, and we had it all planned out, and we knew exactly what was going to happen.' Well, that's bull."

His aides, however, said they were confident they could help orchestrate his nomination in the coming week now that they race had narrowed to two candidates. Romney's financial advantage will not be as enormous in the run-up to Super Tuesday, they said, because there are so many states at stake.

"We're going to be trying to communicate with as many people as you can, and the way you do that is through television," said McCain strategist Steve Schmidt, adding that when it comes to Romney's spending, "Even if he spends more on TV ads, it's not six months more of TV ads, which means there's a diminishing value of his dollars because the nature of the race changes after tonight. We're now in a national contest, and we're down to two candidates."

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 29, 2008; 10:34 PM ET
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