WASHINGTON — John McCain's campaign manager, chief strategist and other senior aides quit Tuesday, the second major staff shake-up in a week for the Republican presidential candidate who trails his rivals in money and polls.
In a statement, the Arizona senator said Terry Nelson and John Weaver offered their resignations, "which I accepted with regret and deep gratitude for their dedication, hard work and friendship."
Nelson, a veteran of President Bush's successful 2004 re-election effort, said he stepped down as campaign manager and Weaver, a longtime aide who was a key player McCain's failed 2000 presidential bid, said he left his post of chief strategist. Both resignations were effective immediately.
Following the two out the door were political director Rob Jesmer and deputy campaign manager Reed Galen, officials said.
At the Capitol, McCain said he would "of course" remain in the presidential race, and disputed the idea that the staff changes marked a major shake-up that reflects his campaign's recent troubles.
"People are free to make their own assessments. I think we're doing fine," McCain said. "I'm very happy with the campaign the way it is."
Other officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid discussing private conversations, said Nelson was fired. But several people close to Nelson disputed that characterization.
Two officials said Rick Davis, a longtime McCain aide who ran the 2000 race, will take over the campaign and that other changes also were likely.
The shake-up comes just six months before the first voting in Iowa and as McCain, once considered the front-runner, seeks to regain some momentum with a diminishing list of options to lift his candidacy.
McCain's fortunes soured considerably this year as he embraced President Bush's troop increase for the Iraq war, an unpopular conflict with the public but one supported by most Republicans, and a bipartisan immigration bill that has divided the GOP.
Over the past six months, his donors and supporters were turned off by what they viewed as McCain embracing the policies of a lame-duck president with abysmal approval ratings. That caused McCain's polling and fundraising to suffer.
The campaign said Mark Salter, a senior aide whom some consider McCain's alter ego, will continue to advise him and the campaign without pay, an arrangement worked out last week. Earlier, officials had said Salter would cease day-to-day activities with the campaign.
McCain said discussions were ongoing about Salter's future role, adding, "he will remain actively involved in my campaign."
McCain hired Nelson more than a year ago to start laying the foundation for the senator's long-expected second presidential run. Weaver has been with McCain for at least 10 years.
"It has been a tremendous honor to serve Senator McCain and work on his campaign," Nelson said. "I believe John McCain is the most experienced and prepared candidate to represent the Republican Party and defeat the Democratic nominee next year."
Weaver said: "It has been my honor and a distinct privilege to serve someone who has always put our country first. I believe that most Americans will come to the conclusion that I have long known there is only one person equipped to serve as our nation's chief executive and deal with the challenges we face, and that person is John McCain."
As word of the changes became public, McCain was on the Senate floor defending the troop buildup in Iraq and contending that reinforcements had only just been put in place. He made his sixth trip to Iraq last week.
"Make no mistake. Violence in Baghdad remains at unacceptably high levels," but the United States and Iraq seem to be "moving in the right direction," McCain said. "The progress our military has made should encourage us."
Days ago, the candidate laid off dozens of staffers after lackluster fundraising and excessive spending left him with just $2 million.
McCain raised just $11.2 million in the second financial quarter of the year, which ended June 30. That was less than the $13.6 million he brought in during the year's first three months when he came in third behind Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.
In what would be a major strategic shift, the campaign said it was seriously considering taking public matching funds of about $6 million. But doing so could tie the campaign's hands by limiting the amount of money it can spend in individual states, particularly if his rivals forgo taxpayer money as expected.
McCain's popularity among Republicans has dropped since the start of the year, in part because of his support for measures in Congress that don't sit well with the GOP's base, like the immigration bill. He declined to participate in an early test of organizational strength in the leadoff state of Iowa this summer, and, the 70-year-old is fighting the perception that he is yesterday's candidate.
McCain's support in national polls has slipped. He is in single digits in some surveys in Iowa and South Carolina, trailing Giuliani, the former New York mayor; Romney, the ex-governor of Massachusetts, and Fred Thompson, the actor and former Tennessee senator who hasn't officially entered the race.