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The New and Improved John McCain

The arrival of ex-Bush campaign wiz Steve Schmidt has breathed new life into the candidate's moribund efforts.

by
Jennifer Rubin

Bio

July 29, 2008 - 12:00 am

A month ago Republican insiders were in a tizzy about the McCain campaign. They complained that John McCain had no winning domestic message, lacked focus and had come up with a decentralized structure destined to flounder. Rather than maximizing his relations with the media, McCain seemed in a losing war with the MSM.

McCain did make a change, but not one that most Republicans expected. Campaign Manager Charlie Black was kicked upstairs to a general oversight role and Steve Schmidt, former communications director, was given daily operational control over the campaign.

Still, grumblings were heard. A quiet buzz to put Republican strategist Mike Murphy in command went public when Bill Kristol in his New York Times column called for Murphy to take over the campaign. But McCain had found his man, nicknamed “Sgt. Schmidt.”

Schmidt, a veteran of George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign and chief of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful re-election campaign, did not reinvent McCain. He has not, as some conservatives have urged, attempted to move his candidate to the right on immigration or stopped him from talking about global warming. And McCain hasn’t given up some populist economic jargon (e.g. jumping on the bandwagon to bailout Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) to the consternation of fiscal conservatives.

But the change has been noticeable.

He has revised the campaign’s approach for dealing with the overwhelming liberal media bias. There haven’t been any more three-page letters from Mark Salter to complain about press bias which we saw earlier in the year. Instead they have used more clever tactics, likely leaking a rejected New York Times op-ed, to make their point that the MSM is in the tank for Obama.

And, likewise, there is far less “process” angst coming from the campaign and party insiders. Kevin Madden, former communications director for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign observes, “The most important change is that there’s a reduced focus on the internal process of the campaign. Steve has always had a disdain for chatter about the levers and mechanics of a campaign and instead demands a focus on the substance of a message that is relentless in its delivery.” And indeed, the background buzz about campaign organization and comings and goings of this or that operative due to lobbyist ties has largely vanished.

Meanwhile, Schmidt has done a number of things to try to sharpen the campaign’s focus and improve its messaging. Katie Levinson, who worked for Schmidt on the Schwarzenegger campaign and served as communications director for Rudy Giuliani, says, “There’s no mistaking the newly aggressive and coordinated communications strategy of the McCain campaign. They are vintage Steve Schmidt.”

Put differently, Schmidt is attempting to make McCain into a better, more aggressive and focused McCain.

First and foremost, the McCain team has started to make the election about Barack Obama’s qualifications as commander-in-chief and more broadly his character. Before wheels lifted up on Obama’s overseas flight the McCain team was out with multiple ads, media calls and even a slick “briefing book” to make a key argument: Obama was wrong on the surge and put politics above country. Snowed under by the avalanche of Obama-mania from the MSM, McCain has nevertheless been able to get out a simple message that may resonate in the fall: Obama was wrong on the surge and would have led the country to defeat.

Second, the McCain team has become more adept at pounding a consistent message day after day. Madden notes, “The way they win is to continue to hammer home, with almost a dizzying repetition, Obama’s obtuse positions on energy, and his lack of readiness to handle the big issues of national security and the economy.”

And indeed the sheer number of media conference calls, surrogate appearances, web and TV ads and McCain speeches on a few key topics — the economy, energy and foreign policy – have replaced a scattershot approach which brought a new topic every day, and sometimes every hour. With a Saturday radio address and new policy comments at the beginning of townhall meetings, Schmidt has been able to focus both his candidate and in turn the media on a particular message for that day.

Third, the McCain team came up with its first winning policy — on energy — and a communications effort to go with it. It has helped rally conservatives and given independent voters a popular message of domestic energy development. And, unlike the past where McCain would bounce from one message to another, he has stuck with it in a coordinated effort of speeches, interviews, surrogate comments and plenty of ads.

Fourth, McCain has gotten into the ring. McCain has personally attacked Obama for ducking hard votes on immigration and for making his mind up on Iraq before getting all the facts. When asked if Obama is an “extremist” McCain didn’t mince words: “That’s his voting record. All I said was his voting record… is more to the left than the announced Socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont.”

He hit the airwaves last Monday to blast Obama personally – calling him out for poor judgment on the surge, playing politics with the war and being stubborn and immune to the facts on the ground. And he did it again at a town hall on Tuesday. That’s a far cry from the days when McCain couldn’t bring himself to say an ill word about his opponent.

And finally, although not a match for Obama’s soaring rhetorical flights of fancy, Schmidt has found some preferred settings to place McCain and allow him to show off his record and rebut some negative attacks from Obama’s team. There are few set-speeches like the much-ridiculed address before the pea-green backdrop to compare unfavorably with Obama’s mass rallies.

A Republican operative closely following the foreign policy debate says, “The trips to Canada and Colombia were great opportunities to show that McCain understands what really counts in diplomacy better than Obama. Now the upcoming forum at Saddleback Church offers another chance for McCain to undermine Obama’s efforts to caricature him as a warmonger by touting his efforts in the Senate to make sure America promotes stability in the world by improving health, education, and economic opportunity in other countries.”

Still, the McCain team certainly is not without its problems.

With the exception of energy policy, McCain has yet to hit on a winning economic message or come up with a slogan to rival “change.” Conservatives continue to pepper the campaign with ideas, but no single, penetrating message has stuck.

In addition, McCain’s surrogates can be as much of a hindrance as a help. Phil Gramm ran head first into McCain’s effort to show he cares about the little guy, and brought on a few days of bad press as the Obama team milked the gaffe for all it was worth until Gramm finally stepped down. Even Carly Fiorina, his articulate business maven, came under fire for getting McCain into uncomfortable turf.

Moreover, there really is no antidote to the media love-fest for Obama and the imbalance in coverage and disparagement of McCain’s chances can, if unchecked, become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Not even Schmidt can convince voters that McCain is as “new” and “exciting” as Obama.

And finally, McCain is still struggling to combat the constant refrain that his administration would be a Bush third term. He continues to list his differences with the Bush administration but hasn’t yet unlocked the key to convincing voters that he’s not a Bush clone. Will he refashion our alliances? Be a better executive? Depart from traditional Republican pro-business policies in some way? McCain hasn’t really told us.

Still, with most polls showing the race within the margin of error, Schmidt can take credit for having at least righted the listing McCain ship. McCain will never be the champion of the conservative base in the way Ronald Reagan was, and Schmidt wisely has resisted the urge to even try to reposition McCain. (Considering how tough Obama’s reinvention has been going, even conservatives recognize the need to allow McCain “wide berth” on deviations from conservative orthodoxy.) But Schmidt arguably has made the most of his candidate and the media atmosphere he has been given to work with.

In an election year in which the punditocracy is convinced that the election is Obama’s to lose, Schmidt is trying to give him every chance to do just that. If he pulls it off, the recriminations and second guessing of the early summer will be forgotten. And if not, there will be plenty of “I told you so’s.”

Jennifer Rubin blogs at the Washington Post.
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