Meet Mac's New Supremo: Steve Schmidt And His Tumultuous First Week

Schmidt's experience with Schwarzenegger tells him about the problems with the conservative base as the candidate runs a campaign aimed at independents.
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The first new TV ad under new McCain campaign director Steve Schmidt.

It was a very interesting first meeting. In January 2006, I'd revealed that then embattled Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was getting a new campaign manager. A name Republican operative and veteran of the Bush/Cheney White House to balance the new, Democratic, chief of staff I'd written about a few weeks earlier. I described Schwarzenegger's impending new campaign manager, a fellow named Steve Schmidt, as a right-wing hatchet man to balance Schwarzenegger's new chief of staff Susan Kennedy, the longtime Democratic operative, a pro-choice leader and lesbian married on Maui whose appointment enraged California's far right.

Schwarzenegger's then new communications director, Adam Mendelsohn, called and told me I had it wrong, that Schmidt was a reasonable and moderate pragmatist, as well as one of his best friends.

Early in our first meeting, I wasn't so sure about that.

After about 30 seconds, I realized that Schmidt was giving me no response to anything I said. The former high school tight end, dubbed by Karl Rove as the "Bullet" for his imposing shaven-headed mien, simply stared impassively at me as I spoke, offering only the briefest, monotonal responses. I decided to ignore the potentially intimidating modus operandi and act as though I were getting normal responses to what I was saying.

After 10 minutes of this, I was getting normal responses from Schmidt. Thoughtful, amusing even, in a dry sort of way. His earlier act had been an intimidation technique. Later, when Schwarzenegger was working on getting recalcitrant Republican legislators to vote for a massive infrastructure bond package, state Senate Democratic leader Don Perata described Schmidt's role to me in the meetings as being "like Frank Nitti (Al Capone's enforcer), just sitting there and staring at them."

Of course, I'd had reason to think of Schmidt as a hatchet man. After he ran the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign war room, Newsweek did its look-back-at-the-campaign issue and described him walking through the office chanting "Kill, kill, kill." Which Schmidt insisted to me he never actually said.

In any event, he didn't march around Arnold HQ singing Viking songs. Although many on the staff found his look intimidating at first, he became known, especially among the younger staffers, for pep talks and strolls around the office offering encouragement. I came to have many long talks with Schmidt about politics. He was thoughtful and realistic about the Republican Party's problems, as well as festering geopolitical issues.

Nor was he simply an advocate of hardball tactics. One aspiring senior staffer, according to sources, proudly recounted his role in blocking Warren Beatty and Annette Bening from crashing a Schwarzenegger town hall meeting during his 2005 special election, when he promoted a few right-leaning initiatives. Drawling, Schmidt asked: "You think that was a good story?" Assured that it was, Schmidt ended the meeting by saying: "I don't. We're done."

It turned out that, while being something of a protege of Karl Rove in Bushworld, Schmidt was actually recruited into Schwarzworld by the person who introduced the rather touchy-feely phrase "We are the ones we've been waiting for" into the Obama Nation, Maria Shriver. It was California's first lady, now a prominent Barack Obama backer along with Uncle Ted and best friend Caroline, who went out looking for the best young Republican operatives to work with her and a handful of Democrats in moving Schwarzenegger back to the center for what was then a very uphill 2006 re-election campaign.

Now Schmidt is ending a tumultuous first week as John McCain's new campaign director, having moved up from his role as senior advisor. Before, Schmidt was the guy on the road with McCain, frequently stationing himself right in front of the candidate as he spoke, studying his performance and giving him feedback. Now he's the guy "orchestrating the symphony," as one advisor put it.

There've been some cacophonous notes in the first week.

First he had to contend with what turns out to have been a major attempted movida by McCain 2000 chief strategist Mike Murphy, via a compliant media, to return as chief strategist. The frequently erroneous propagandist Bill Kristol led the charge with a Monday column in the New York Times. But by Wednesday, Murphy was in Sacramento, with a new NBC analyst contract in hand, meeting with a partner in his lobbying/consulting business about their California operations.

Meanwhile, he shepherded the reboot of the TV advertising campaign. A fourth new ad since June 6th, which is actually the best yet. Which also features the fourth campaign slogan for McCain in a month. "Don't hope for a better life; vote for one." Which happens to be lifted from the British Conservative Party in the 1970s, when it was developed by the Saatchi and Saatchi advertising firm. And as I look into it, the new lead media consultant, Fred Davis, who replaced Mark McKinnon who stepped away because he won't work against Obama, also may have borrowed from the Tories the "walking backwards" motif used against Phil Angelides in the 2006 Schwarzenegger re-election campaign to signify that he would take California back to a bad past.

Then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he wants the US to set a timetable for troop withdrawal, essentially the Democratic position. And then Schmidt had to deal with Phil Gramm's dunderheadedness -- "a nation of whiners, America's never been stronger" -- as the country deals with the subprime and oil price crises that Gramm, a Texas senator-turned-Swiss banker who serves as McCain's preeminent economic advisor, is right in the middle of.

Schmidt will need the diverse experiences he's had as McCain tries to turn out the conservative base and turn on independents and moderates.

His time as a top Bush political aide and counselor to Vice President Cheney, who dispatched him to Baghdad to straighten out PR operations there, tells him about the conservative base. His early times working for moderates Matt Fong and Lamar Alexander tells him about the center. His experience with Schwarzenegger tells him about the problems with the conservative base as the candidate runs a campaign aimed at independents.

Schwarzenegger's campaign was all about about independents. With Schmidt's encouragement, he became a big champion of anti-global warming efforts and rebuilding the state's infrastructure. Getting votes in the center, to Schwarzenegger's way of thinking, was the key. The right-wing base voters would come along for the ride, motivated by Arnold's iconic status and their dislike for the Democratic candidate.

The Schwarzenegger/Schmidt plan -- which former Bush pollster Matthew Dowd, now a big Bush critic, also helped devise -- went smashingly well as Schwarzenegger came from behind to win a 17-point landslide victory over Democrat Phil Angelides.

"We never had to get off Plan A," said Schmidt. Schmidt had brought a group of White House exiles to California which I called "Arnold's Texans." Because they all had quasi-Texas accents. Though few were actually Texans, natch. Schmidt and his team were constantly criticized by California's far right activists.

The coolness was evident during a Republican convention at LA's Century Plaza Hotel, when, at an evening poolside gathering, it turned out I was much friendlier to the state's top conservative blogger, a former Young Americans for Freedom leader named Jon Fleischman, than was the crew.

They gleefully pitched in on the strategy of total distance between Schwarzenegger and Bush as the former action superstar tooled around California in a green bus talking about the failures of Washington amidst partisan infighting and the need for California to seize environmental leadership and rebuild the state with a huge infrastructure program. Meanwhile, Schmidt's operatives, using a state-of-the-art war room, pounded the Democratic candidate relentlessly, crafting a "typical Phil" tagline around his rather nerdy persona, saying day in and day out that he "never met a tax he didn't like."

The negative ads were faintly humorous; the positive ads always upbeat, out to raise Californians' impressions not just of Schwarzenegger -- who most liked personally -- but of the state itself. Although his opponent tried throughout to link him to the unpopular Bush, Schwarzenegger won a landslide victory in a year in which a Democratic wave swept around the country.

But it won't be easy for Schmidt to repeat this with McCain. For one thing, McCain, despite his maverick reputation, is much more the conservative Republican than the pro-choice Schwarzenegger ever was. Schwarzenegger really did back big renewable energy programs and had spoken out about climate change in his landslide 2003 election victory.

McCain is using climate change as a key differentiator from Bush. But he doesn't have the record Schwarzenegger had on renewable energy or fuel efficiency standards. McCain is more conservative on the economy, as well. Then there's the unpopular Iraq War, which Schwarzenegger mostly skirted but McCain, of course, has championed.

And then there's the matter of money and organization. Schwarzenegger is the biggest fundraiser in the history of California politics. This enabled him to out-advertise and out-fight his opponents. McCain has struggled with fundraising. And in Obama, Schmidt and McCain are up against the most successful fundraiser in the history of presidential primaries, with an Internet spigot the Republicans can't begin to match.

Obama's operation is much more technologically advanced and better organized than that of McCain and the Republicans.

Schmidt has a lot of experience in defeating Democrats who play into Republican hands. Which Obama, for all his real vulnerabilities, mostly doesn't do. Schmidt does know very well how to fight, however, and he has a lot of experience in appealing to the center. Which is a big reason why John McCain can still win this election.

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