Opinion: Steve Schmidt’s first moves as McCain manager bode new discipline, style

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Steve Schmidt, the political veteran named last week to run the stuttering presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain and save it from itself, has moved quickly to install another veteran of previous Republican campaigns that opposed the Arizona senator.

The new style first emerges at lunch hour today in Denver with a trademark town hall meeting and a series of local media interviews focused on, of all things, the economy, which pretty much everyone but the McCain operation has long believed was campaign issue No. 1 in 2008.


On Sunday, as first reported by ABC News, Schmidt named as McCain’s new political director Mike DuHaime, whose job will be to provide just such nonstop relevant focus.

DuHaime’s most recent political feat was to lead the one-time frontrunning GOP presidential campaign of ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to crash in flames somewhere in the Florida swamps.

But don’t be fooled. The tough-talking, aggressive Schmidt and the milder but equally methodical DuHaime, both in their 30s and both New Jerseyans, are part of a new generation of professional Republican operatives getting their first chances to direct the unruly multimillion-dollar monsters that massive national campaigns can become.

Many like Schmidt were schooled in the successful style of....

...Karl Rove, who learned his methodical political management skills through the daily minutiae of state races during the 80s and 90s before jumping into national politics.

Schmidt worked in the losing campaigns of would-be senator Matt Fong of California and would-be president Lamar Alexander, now a GOP senator from Tennessee.

In 2004 Schmidt ran the rapid-response team for Bush-Cheney, a job once held by ex-White House counselor Dan Bartlett, before working with Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney.

In 2006, Schmidt went west to head the ultimately successful reelection campaign for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had lost several important ballot initiatives, was sagging in popularity and had a campaign team pulling in several different directions.

Sound familiar?

The grumbling grew louder among grass-roots Republicans across the country in recent weeks as the feeling mounted that while few work harder than McCain himself, his campaign had squandered its 90-day general election headstart with spinning wheels taking the candidate in too many directions with muddled messages, sloppy staging and clumsy speech deliveries.

In recent days McCain has worked with Brett O’Donnell, a speech coach, to smooth his chronically awkward Teleprompter speech deliveries, which sound particularly clumsy in comparison to his Democratic opponent’s well-timed and rhythmic oratory.

Can the veteran and, yes, stubborn Arizona senator, the former free-spirited fighter pilot who prefers the fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants style evidenced in his favorite unrehearsed town hall gatherings, adapt to the more disciplined mode of pro managers? And stick to the polished message without inadvertently inserting some distracting comment?


The McCain campaign has also just hired Greg Jenkins, an experienced political advance team captain and Fox News producer. His job is to spiff up the often-dreary settings and stagings of McCain’s campaign appearances that can silently add or detract so much from delivery of the day’s political message not to the immediate audience, which are merely living props, but to the thousands more witnessing the event through the prism of TV.

And, according to Bill Kristol, the other shoe will soon drop when McCain hires Mike Murphy, the campaign strategist who helped him nearly upset the Bush family in 2000, as his traveling advisor and strategist while Schmidt drives the campaign from Alexandria.

Does anyone remember Giuliani’s relentless 9/11 message of last fall? While ultimately unsuccessful in Republican primaries due to a variety of reasons, there was no doubt what Giuliani’s message was. And DuHaime ran that effort. Likewise, under Rove’s direction, George W. Bush ran two successful Texas gubernatorial races with but three or four easily identifiable goals.

DuHaime began his political career as campaign manager for Anthony Bucco’s successful New Jersey State Senate race in 1997. He was deputy campaign manager for Bob Franks’ 2000 U.S. Senate race, and, oh, look, regional political director of Bush’s 2004 reelection bid.

In 2005 and 2006 DuHaime was the political director of the Republican National Committee, which under several chairmen including former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, Ken Mehlman, Ed Gillespie and Florida Sen. Mel Martinez has since 2000 closely coordinated its efforts with the White House (meaning Rove).

DuHaime’s appointment, which also made him deputy campaign manager, is an early sign of the firm, more centralized and pragmatic approach the blunt Schmidt has quickly imposed on the GOP candidate’s campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va.

Anyone who’s sat in on a national campaign’s daily message meeting, which sets and meticulously choreographs the candidate’s travels and messages up to two to three weeks out, will recognize the difference between one that’s a chorus of possibly good ideas and one that has a presiding officer who listens and then decisively drives a single theme.


Hard to believe, fully 18 months into this presidential campaign and less than four months out from the November election, but DuHaime actually replaces no one on the McCain staff.

That’s because, amazingly, until Sunday the Republican presidential nominee’s national team did not employ either a political director or a field director.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Photo credits: Mike DuHaime (top) Kevin Sanders / AP; Steve Schmidt (bottom) Matt Sayles / AP