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Commentary: McCain campaign following in Hillary's footsteps

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  • Rollins: An internally divided campaign can't successfully confront opponent
  • John McCain is following Hillary Clinton in running a divided campaign, he says
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  • Rollins: McCain needs to address the economic crisis, which scares Americans
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By Ed Rollins
CNN Contributor
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Editor's Note: Ed Rollins, who served as political director for President Reagan, is a Republican strategist who was national chairman of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign.

Ed Rollins says internal divisions are preventing McCain's campaign from getting out a clear message.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- A campaign at war with itself cannot fight its opponent effectively.

We have seen two major campaigns this year that could be described as internally divided -- Sen. Hillary Clinton's losing primary campaign and now Sen. John McCain's general election effort.

And while chaos and disarray reigned supreme in Sen. Barack Obama's opponents' campaigns, the steady, disciplined and strategically driven Obama campaign marches forward toward likely victory.

Clinton's campaign had several different groups setting and implementing strategy. They include the first campaign team led by pollster Mark Penn, her loyalists from the White House days led by eventual campaign manager Maggie Williams and campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe, and a rump group led by her husband. Prior to this year and his efforts on his wife's behalf, President Clinton was viewed as one of the best political strategists around.

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All that brain power couldn't come together and agree on a consistent strategy to beat a young inexperienced outsider. There will be second guessing and finger pointing for years to come.

We now see something similar in the McCain campaign. There have been at least three major managerial changes or overthrows in the past 18 months.

The first was the Rick Davis/John Weaver battle. Weaver and Mike Murphy, one of the best media strategists in the business, were the key players in the 2000 McCain effort and Weaver was the political guru who guided McCain's efforts since then. Davis, with a major assist from Cindy McCain and his former lobbying partner, Charlie Black, ousted Weaver.

Davis and Black, who masterminded Bob Dole's unsuccessful 1996 campaign and Phil Gramm's aborted presidential effort before that, are super lobbyists, and they opened the doors to their K Street allies.

Davis was then replaced -- in reality if not in title -- by Steve Schmidt, part of Karl Rove's operation. Schmidt is a first-rate tactician but new to McCain's world, and he still shares power with Black and Davis. This campaign would have been a much different operation if Weaver and Murphy had been brought back; but that was never going to happen with Davis and Black.

In the end, it's not relevant who holds what title in the McCain operation, because it is not being run by campaign professionals, but by the Washington lobbying class.
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And no one seems to be in charge, least of all the candidate. The end result is a campaign suffering from "schizophrenia."

John McCain is saying one thing on the stump, his running mate another. But the worst sin is that his advertising campaign is incoherent and putting out multiple and inconsistent messages.

What McCain and his campaign need to understand is that whatever happened in the past is no longer relevant. James Carville's famous slogan in Bill Clinton's 1992 victory over the first Bush: "It's the economy stupid!" can now be replaced with "You morons, what have you done with my money, my life and my kids' future?"

If John McCain wants anyone to pay attention to him in the last three weeks of this campaign, he must address those concerns.

Attacking Obama for his association with Bill Ayers -- the unrepentant Vietnam-era terrorist who should have been jailed four decades ago for bombing New York City Police Headquarters, the United States Capitol building, and the Pentagon -- is a legitimate tactic. So is asking questions regarding the influence of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's controversial pastor.

The problem is that few voters care about what happened 40 years ago when in the last few weeks they have seen their savings and retirements and possibly their jobs and homes going up in flames. If you don't talk to voters about their concerns they will not spend one minute listening to you in the closing days of a campaign.

Government is not working. President Bush's leadership has failed the country and Congress has not done much better. How are you going to be better? That's the question voters want answered.

With one debate remaining and less than three weeks of campaigning left, John McCain's 10-year quest to be president is coming to a close and -- as of today -- a dreadful one.

All I can advise is "Engage us, John!" You are an honorable man who has dedicated your life to serving this country. Quit the name calling and make the last weeks about leadership and solutions.

Accept Obama's challenge issued last week: "The American people aren't looking for someone who can divide this country. They're looking for somebody who will lead this country."

Tell us how you will lead this country through the greatest crisis we have faced in modern times.

And Sen. McCain, remember your own words of last week about Obama: "He's a decent family man -- citizen -- that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues."

Tell us what those disagreements are. Then, at least voters can make their final choices on things that matter to them now.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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