The company McCain keeps

THE COMPANY MCCAIN KEEPS…. Earlier this month, Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) exploratory committee announced that Terry Nelson, a veteran GOP campaign operative, would be McCain’s national campaign manager for the 2008 campaign. It was an odd choice, not because Nelson isn’t qualified to run a national campaign, but because he seems to represent everything the old McCain used to hate about politics.

Nelson, for example, became known as the strategist behind the infamous “bimbo” ad used against Harold Ford, Jr., in Tennessee’s Senate race this year. (Wal-Mart fired Nelson as an advisor for his role in the creation of the commercial.) It’s also worth noting, that Nelson was mixed up in Tom DeLay’s money laundering scandal, and the phone-jamming scandal in New Hampshire’s 2002 Senate race.

What’s more, it’s not just Nelson. TNR’s Brad Plumer notes Team McCain’s latest addition.

And now McCain has hired Jill Hazelbaker to be his communications director in New Hampshire. Hazelbaker got press for engaging in a bit of sock-puppetry while she worked for Thomas Kean’s New Jersey Senate campaign earlier this year, commenting on liberal blogs under a variety of aliases — including “cleanupnj” and “usedtobeblue” — and attacking Kean’s opponent, Senator Robert Menendez. When reporters started asking around, she called the allegations “nonsense” — even after the comments had been traced to her IP address. Oops.

There’s no use pretending that dirty tricks and ruthless operatives are something new and shocking in the world of campaigns. Mostly this is just another routine (and probably futile) plea for the press to stop pretending that McCain’s presidential run is somehow going to be “above politics,” or that he’s “the last honest man” in Washington.

As a rule, political consultants and campaign aides are not well known enough to warrant media coverage of their own, so it’s unlikely political reporters following the presidential campaign will devote a lot of ink to who McCain chooses to bring on board the bus formerly known as the “Straight Talk Express.”

But that doesn’t change the fact that the old McCain claimed to have certain standards for the style of politics he wanted to be a part of. The new McCain seems to have looked at the worst of right-wing politics and decided, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.