Also co-chairing the event are Rob Allyn, a Texas PR man who was paid $46,000 to produce the Wylys' "Republicans for Clean Air" ads, and businessmen Albert Huddleston and Harold Simmons, who gave $100,000 and $3 million respectively to the controversial independent group, "Swift Vets & POWs for Truth." McCain called "dishonest and dishonorable" the "Swift Vets" group's 2004 campaign ads that helped sink the presidential chances of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Political observers say that McCain is walking a delicate line.
"He's trying to somehow preserve that enormous strength that made him rock star and folk hero -- over and above his previous military service -- that he's a straight talker and straight shooter with principles and will take on the nefarious forces whoever they are," Ornstein says. "On the other hand, he understands that in order to win the presidency, the first thing you've got to do is win the nomination. And in order to win the nomination, you've got to be undisputed leader of the party not just a leader of a movement."
"Our party tends to nominate 'The Next Guy,'" says McCain friend and ally Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. "As much resentment as there was against Ronald Reagan in 1976 after Ford lost, he was the next guy and got the nomination in 1980."
George H.W. Bush may have slapped Reagan in the primaries, but he got the nod eight years later; same with Bob Dole who waged a bitter campaign against Bush Sr. in 1988 and got the nod in 1996.
"McCain's the next guy," Kirk says.
Like the Wylys and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, others co-chairing the May 15 event come from the Texas Republican power structure that helped propel President Bush into the White House. They include former Texas Republican Gov. Bill Clements, an early Bush supporter whose 1986 gubernatorial campaign put Bush political guru Karl Rove on the map; George Bayoud, Clements' campaign manager who worked closely with Rove and was Clements' gubernatorial chief of staff; Jeanne Phillips, a longtime Bush fundraiser who helped run the Bush high-donor fundraising operation and helped run the inauguration festivities in 2001, 2005, and for Bush's father in 1989; and businessman and so-called "corporate raider" Tom Hicks, who helped make President Bush a millionaire 15 times over when he bought the Texas Rangers from a business group Bush helmed in 1999.
Campaign records indicate that many members of the Republican establishment seem to be lining up for a seat on the Straight Talk Express. Former George H.W. Bush national security adviser Brent Scowcroft has donated $5,000 to McCain's PAC; former RNC finance chair and Bush "Ranger" Lewis Eisenberg has donated $5,000; former Michigan Finance Chair of Bush for President 2000, Ron Weiser, appointed by President Bush as ambassador to the Slovak Republic, donated $10,000 along with his wife.
Bush media guru Mark McKinnon has said he'll eagerly work for McCain if neither Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice nor Florida Gov. Jeb Bush chose to run. Officially on board Straight Talk America as senior advisers are Terry Nelson, the Bush-Cheney 2004 political director, and former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party Chuck Larson.