Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is scouting for local talent after two top campaign staffers left to take other jobs.
A McCain spokesman announced Friday that campaign manager Shiree Verdone and her deputy, Mike Hellon, were "transitioning" to an Arizona-focused GOP fundraising venture. It was a "mutual decision" that had been in the works for "a while," according to the campaign.
"As part of the campaign's plan for this election year, Shiree and Mike are transitioning over to work with party committees to create a ticket-wide Republican Victory operation," McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said in a statement. "Sen. McCain is very grateful for all that Shiree and Mike have done to launch the re-election campaign and establish it on a firm footing, and looks forward to working closely with them for Victory in November."
McCain is now looking for Arizona-based talent to replace Verdone and Hellon and expects to announce new hires in the coming weeks, according to a campaign official. McCain's small circle of top advisors, which includes Rick Davis, Charlie Black and Mark Salter, are still overseeing the his reelection effort.
McCain's primary opponent dubbed the departures a "meltdown."
"This is the hottest race in the country and the top two people don't just jump ship with three months to go before the primary election unless something is wrong," said a spokesman for former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.). "This looks more like a meltdown than a makeover."
Some observers have characterized the departure as a shake-up, which came as a result of the reception of McCain's latest TV commercial wherein he uses the phrase "complete the danged fence" while strolling along the U.S.-Mexico border. It was widely panned but is still airing in Arizona, the campaign confirmed. There were other signs of trouble.
The campaign's office opening in Tucson on Friday was chaotic. McCain was unable to attend because his flight was grounded by weather in Dallas. His staff scrambled to get House candidate Jonathan Paton (R) to fill in, but he had other engagements. That left Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup and car dealer Jim Click to speak to the crowd, who were primed to hear from the senator himself.
Verdone and Hellon were hired at a time when the four-term senator was expected to coast to reelection. Initially tasked with managing petition signature gathering and other routine activities, that changed when Hayworth got into the primary and sought to exploit McCain's perceived weakness on immigration and border issues. The double departure confirms that despite some polls showing him with a double-digit lead, McCain recognizes he faces a stiff primary challenge from Hayworth.