The New and Improved John McCain

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."