WASHINGTON — John McCain calls himself an underdog. That may be an understatement.
The GOP presidential candidate trails Democrat Barack Obama in polls, organization and money while trying to succeed a deeply unpopular fellow Republican in a year that favors Democrats. McCain also doesn't seem to have a coherent message let alone much of a strategy despite securing the nomination three months earlier than Obama.
"This is a tough race. We are behind. We are the underdog. That's what I like to be," the GOP nominee-in-waiting frequently tells donors these days, keenly aware not only of his woes but also his proven comeback ability: He won his party's nomination despite the implosion of his campaign last summer.
One year later, and now in the general election, McCain's troubles are so acute that he recently gave senior adviser Steve Schmidt "full operational control" of the day-to-day campaign and, effectively, scaled back the duties of campaign manager Rick Davis. The shift in responsibilities came after weeks of Republican quibbling that McCain had not adequately made the transition for the fall.
"The frustration is there's no big theme around which to build a winning campaign," said Steve Lombardo, a Republican pollster. "They need a big strategic message that will show the differences between the two campaigns, and allow for a win."
Hope is far from lost: The election is still four months away. The party conventions and the presidential debates are forthcoming. Conservative evangelical leaders skeptical of McCain are now coalescing around him. The race is still competitive. And, Obama's campaign is far from flawless.
McCain also is beefing up his staff with more presidential campaign veterans under the guidance of Schmidt, a top aide in President Bush's re-election effort and the operative who led Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to a come-from-behind victory in California two years ago.
The campaign will try to showcase its efforts to restore discipline this week when McCain announces a "jobs first" economic plan and tours competitive states.
For now, GOP insiders are cautious as they watch for improvement — and they should be.
The political environment is dreadful for the GOP, with Bush's approval rating at low levels as the country teeters economically and fights two wars.
Asked Saturday what he thinks about McCain's apparent pride in underdog status, Obama told reporters traveling with him: "Two years ago, John McCain was the putative Republican nominee who has been part of the Washington establishment for years and who touts all his Washington experience, vs. me. So the notion that somehow I'm the heavy favorite in this race belies recent political history and a lot of American history. So, we've got a lot of work to do."
Still, compared with McCain's campaign struggles, Obama is seemingly skating along, visiting states Bush won four years ago and courting traditional GOP supporters with his core message: "Change We Can Believe In."
Nonetheless, the Illinois senator says, "I'm going to have to be a better candidate" and is mindful of his own vulnerabilities.
There are many, not the least of which is trying to become the first black president of a country where racism remains. The GOP-fueled label of liberal elitist also could stick on this Harvard-educated Chicagoan.
And, Obama also may be undercutting his claim to be a straight-shooting, new-politics candidate as he repeatedly breaks with his liberal base on various issues to aggressively move to appeal to the center of the electorate.
National polls vary widely, but they have one commonality: None shows McCain ahead of Obama. And, on voters' most important issues, McCain trails on every subject but Iraq and terrorism. He also lags in key states, including Bush-won Colorado and Ohio.
When it comes to message and strategy, McCain has appeared to flounder.
He hasn't settled on one theme and can't seem to stick with a particular line of argument in favor of his candidacy for more than a couple of days. His attempts to derail Obama are scattershot; the campaign simply takes advantages of openings Obama creates rather than creating a negative narrative against the Democrat. And, McCain's fundraising events have driven his campaign schedule, often putting him in solid Republican states instead of swing states likely to decide the election.
As the sleepy summer preconvention window opens, Obama is running TV ads in 18 states while McCain focuses on 11 for now and the Republican National Committee bolsters his efforts in the Great Lakes region.
At the same time, McCain, 71, is working to match Obama's organization. For now, McCain's campaign is roughly 300-strong compared with Obama's 1,000-person plus operation.
Said Phil Musser, a former Republican Governors Association executive director: "There are a lot of miles to go before we get to Election Day, and McCain is in his finest form when he's the underdog."
The candidate had better hope that rings true once again.
Liz Sidoti covers the presidential campaign and has covered national politics since 2003.