Senator returns to New Hampshire for speech on Iraq

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – John McCain’s campaign is losing two veteran Republican strategists in Iowa and will report a seven-figure debt for the second quarter in a row, back-to-back blows to a presidential bid still reeling from a major staff shake-up earlier this week.

Ed Failor Jr., said Thursday that he and Karen Slifka plan to notify McCain by letter of their decisions to leave. Both are GOP operatives with deep ties in Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation caucuses, and national politics.

“As much as I like Senator McCain, it’s not a team I’m willing to stay involved with any longer,” Failor said.

The campaign also will show about $1 million in debts when it reports its second-quarter finances this weekend, according to a Republican familiar with the campaign’s fundraising. The figure is smaller than the $1.8 million in the red that the campaign reported after the first three months of the year. McCain aides would not comment on the campaign’s debt.

Today, McCain returns to New Hampshire to give a speech on Iraq, terrorism and national security in which he will propose increasing the ranks of the Army and Marine Corps to 900,000, up roughly 150,000 from planned levels, according to excerpts his campaign released.

McCain also will suggest that Hillary Rodham Clinton is ignoring a terrorist presence in Iraq and will generally accuse Democratic hopefuls of engaging in “wishful and very dangerous thinking” on the war saying: “Democratic candidates for president will argue for the course of cutting our losses and withdrawing from the threat in the vain hope it will not follow us here.”

Once the GOP front-runner, McCain’s second presidential candidacy has been foundering on all fronts.

His support has dropped in national polls and his top GOP rivals, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, have easily outdistanced him in fundraising. In the past week, he has accepted the resignations of two top aides in his national campaign, laid off more than half his staff, narrowed his strategy to three states and disclosed he had only $2 million to spend.

Failor ran the Iowa field operation for President Bush’s campaign in 2004, assembling a deep campaign organization that energized social and religious conservatives. Bush narrowly won the state, the first time since 1984 that a Republican had prevailed in Iowa in the general election.

Failor also works for Iowans for Tax Relief, a conservative group that runs the state’s largest political action committee.

Slifka came to the McCain campaign from her role as a strategist for the Republican National Committee.

Both had close ties to Terry Nelson, who served as McCain’s campaign manager until his departure this week.

The defections are the latest sign of trouble for McCain in Iowa.

Jeff Lamberti, a former GOP legislative leader who is a co-chairman of McCain’s Iowa campaign, said staff cuts in the state and the loss of major strategists is a blow.

“I’m not hearing a whole lot, to be honest,” Lamberti said. “It definitely is tougher in Iowa. You need to be here, you need to have people on the ground.”

When he sought the nomination in 2000, McCain skipped the Iowa caucuses to focus on the New Hampshire primary. There’s no sign he’ll make a similar decision this time, but even McCain’s supporters concede he’s in a difficult position.

“If you reduce the staff, you need to have the senator out here more often, rather than less often,” said David Roederer, a veteran operative heading up McCain’s Iowa operation. “I believe they understand that.”

Roederer was on a conference call with McCain earlier in the week to discuss strategy.

“What he said was we’re going to move as aggressively as we can in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina,” said Roederer, referring to the states holding the first three tests of strength.

Still, some wondered whether McCain could get backers out on caucus night, in the dead of winter, to argue politics. The caucuses are scheduled for Jan. 14.

“It’s boots on the ground and they had that and they were going rather well, I thought, this winter and spring,” said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa. “It just evaporated overnight on them.”

In more bad news for McCain, a co-chair of his Florida campaign – state Rep. Bob Allen – was arrested Wednesday after offering to perform oral sex for $20 on an undercover male police officer, authorities said. Allen, 48, was seen coming in and out of a restroom three times at a park in Titusville, Fla., said police Lt. Todd Hutchinson. He then approached an undercover officer and was arrested.

Allen has been charged with solicitation for prostitution, which has a maximum penalty of one year in jail. Brevard County jail officials said Allen posted a $500 bond.

Allen said he is not guilty and vowed to fight the charge, calling his arrest “an ugly and unpleasant situation that has been thrust on me and my family.” The lawmaker had sponsored a failed bill that would have tightened the state’s prohibition on public sex.

AP-ES-07-12-07 2243EDT

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