McCain again shuffles advisors

Times Staff Writers

John McCain’s decision to shuffle his top advisors for the second time in a year follows months of anxiety among Republicans who fear that his presidential campaign lacks the money, discipline and message to beat Democrat Barack Obama.

The question Wednesday was whether the move -- elevating senior strategist Steve Schmidt to head day-to-day operations and shifting campaign manager Rick Davis to a lesser role -- came soon enough.

It’s not unusual for a campaign to undergo a staff shake-up. Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, Al Gore and John F. Kerry all retooled their campaigns. None, however, made the move this close to November, and among them, only Reagan went on to win the White House.


Still, McCain may have had no choice.

Though national polls suggest the race is competitive, there has been growing worry in the GOP ranks about the direction of McCain’s campaign, especially the seeming inconsistency of his message. From day to day, McCain has alternated between appeals to independents, who flocked to his 2000 bid, and overtures to the Republican right, which is less than enthused about his candidacy.

“It’s a paradox,” said Don Sipple, a veteran GOP ad man, offering the issue of the environment as an example. “On the one hand, he’s kind of there with [California Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger on greenhouse gas, a progressive view for a Republican. But he parts company on the No. 1 symbolic issue on the environment, offshore drilling.”

Others, who asked to remain unidentified to avoid alienating the candidate and his team, were more blunt.

“There’s a lot of unease,” said one Republican strategist who is an occasional advisor to the McCain campaign. “There’s the age factor, the past-versus-the-future thing. He’s conservative by most measures and people generally like him. But when it comes down to getting excited about the candidate, it just isn’t there.”

The campaign changes were revealed while McCain, 71, was in the middle of a three-day excursion to Colombia and Mexico to highlight his views on free trade, a trip that fed perceptions that the senator is operating as his own campaign chief, to his detriment.

“He wanted to do it, but the campaign’s fine with it,” Mark Salter, the senator’s closest aide, said last week.

McCain’s staff comes in for its share of criticism as well.

Though Davis was widely praised as an effective money manager who rescued the campaign from financial straits last summer, he has some hefty political baggage. Many in the party feel that having a former lobbyist in the campaign’s top spot undermines McCain’s reformer image and message that he is the best candidate to change Washington.

The hard-charging Schmidt came to the campaign after running Schwarzenegger’s 2006 reelection bid. Before that, he worked for Vice President Dick Cheney and oversaw the Bush-Cheney “war room” in 2004.

The 37-year-old New Jersey native, who lives in Northern California with his wife and two young children, gained renown in political circles for his jugular instinct and rapier quotes. He was praised Wednesday for his intense focus and discipline -- something some party operatives believe has been notably lacking in McCain’s bid.

“He’s message-driven. He’s very task-driven,” said Tom Rath, a GOP strategist who worked with Schmidt on other campaigns. “He will say, ‘How do we win today?’ ” -- treating every 24-hour cycle as a separate skirmish -- “then go out and try to win it.”

A frequent presence at McCain’s side, Schmidt will now be based at the campaign’s suburban Washington headquarters with a much broader portfolio.

Aides expect Schmidt to streamline and sharpen operations. He is expected to overhaul Davis’ unconventional command structure, which granted 11 regional managers autonomy over how to run the campaign in their states. Schmidt is said to favor a more traditional, tightly run organization.

Schmidt will still answer to Davis, who keeps his title of campaign manager while focusing on budget matters, fundraising and longer-term planning, including convention activities and the search for McCain’s running mate. Everyone else will report to Schmidt.

The campaign sought to downplay the change, revealed Wednesday morning at a staff meeting at campaign headquarters. But the announcement highlighted the conflicting views of McCain’s advisors, who offered different interpretations of what the reshuffling meant.

The change couldn’t come soon enough for many fretful Republicans, who trace McCain’s difficulties to the period after he essentially clinched the nomination. They believe he squandered the weeks between February and June, when Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton were battling for the Democratic nomination.

McCain had a chance then, they say, to seize the political center and better position himself for the general election. Some operatives wondered, for example, why he was talking up his support of conservative judges and his long-held opposition to abortion while also trying to appeal to independent women.

They were puzzled when McCain spent days touring the Pacific Northwest touting his work on global warming, only to undercut his environmental credentials with a trip to Houston, where he told oil executives he wanted to end the ban on offshore drilling.

Other campaign decisions created distractions -- such as Davis’ rollout of a strict new conflict-of-interest policy for aides with lobbying ties. The announcement led to the embarrassing departures of several aides, a perception of a campaign in chaos and heightened scrutiny on the past lobbying activities of those who remained, including Davis.

Some Republicans have also been baffled by McCain’s campaign schedule, which appeared to be driven solely by fundraising. While Obama has focused on battleground states since clinching the nomination, McCain has spent a lot of time in money-rich states he is unlikely to win: California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

“There’s a lot of things we’ve got to do better, and we’re working to get better all the time,” Salter said.

There is plenty of time before November. Each of the candidates will choose their running mates and star at their nominating conventions this summer.

McCain and Obama are also expected to face off in at least three debates this fall. Any of those events could reconstitute the race overnight.

History also lends some perspective. Reagan was struggling as late as mid-October 1980 before his candidacy jelled. He won the election in a landslide.

Still, Schmidt may have his hands full presenting a consistent message in the months ahead.

McCain’s forum of choice is a town-hall-style meeting -- something the campaign has no plans to change even though unscreened questions from the audience can often send the candidate “off message,” as political pros say.

The same is true of McCain’s informal chats with reporters on the back of his bus, though strategists have limited them recently.

For all the carping by Republicans, there are some who say the campaign must let “McCain be McCain,” as columnist Peggy Noonan recently put it in the Wall Street Journal.

His style of running for president may be a departure from the more buttoned-down, hierarchical campaigns GOP operatives have come to expect. But it suits the candidate and that, his defenders say, is the most important thing.

“There’s no way of knowing whether a freewheeling, maverick John McCain can win in November or not,” said Dan Schnur, a GOP strategist who served as the communications director of McCain’s 2000 campaign.

“But trying to get him to run a George Bush or Bob Dole campaign is a pretty sure ticket to defeat.”