He’s the driving force behind McCain

Times Staff Writers

In the wild ride that is the McCain presidential campaign, Steve Schmidt has been at the wheel, steering -- some say careering -- from Paris Hilton to Sarah Palin, from abrupt “suspension” to abrupt restart.

Schmidt is McCain’s day-to-day operations boss.

Retained in a summer shake-up intended to right McCain’s faltering campaign, Schmidt, 38, quickly put his stamp on the operation, aggressively attacking Democratic nominee Barack Obama, often with biting ridicule, and vying to dominate every day’s news cycle.

It’s an approach that would be familiar to Californians. Schmidt managed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reelection campaign two years ago.


But pundits and Republicans have been left confused, particularly after McCain, in a head-spinning 72-hour period, canceled campaign appearances to work on the Wall Street bailout plan, tried to postpone the first presidential debate, and then showed up after all.

Schmidt tends to shrug off the criticism. When two high-profile Republicans, unaware their microphones were hot, disparaged Palin, the governor of Alaska and McCain’s running mate, on national cable television last month, Schmidt offered a two-word reaction: “Who cares?”

For a time, Schmidt’s tactics seemed to work. Team McCain was practicing a political jujitsu that kept the Republican close in polls when the Democratic standard-bearer, given George Bush’s unpopularity, should have had a significant lead.

The effort peaked with the choice of Palin as McCain’s running mate. Convinced that McCain needed a dramatic gesture to make the race competitive, Schmidt pressed McCain to pluck the Alaska governor from obscurity.

Other than the candidates, no one in the operation has more riding on that decision than Schmidt. And no one has worked harder to turn the decision into a success.

He defended Palin against what he called sexist attacks, and traveled to Alaska to brief her before her first TV interviews. For three days, he was ensconced at McCain’s spread in Sedona, Ariz., helping Palin prepare for her performance on the biggest night of her career: the debate against Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden.

But a month from election day, Schmidt faces his most difficult professional challenge. McCain has dropped in polls as Washington struggled to find a solution to a reeling Wall Street. Polls show voters trust Obama more than McCain to fix the economy.

“He could run the greatest campaign in the history of campaigns and still lose by a landslide,” said consultant Chris Lehane, a California Democrat who has worked with Schmidt on several projects for corporate clients. “Given the current political environment, the Democrats could nominate a refrigerator and still win.”

Schmidt -- 6 feet tall, 220 pounds, his head shaved -- is fully aware that his presence can be intimidating. No less a figure than Bush strategist Karl Rove bestowed on Schmidt the nickname “Bullet,” though he and Rove dismiss accounts that he is a Rove protege.

“He has worked very hard to construct this public persona because it serves him,” said Dan Schnur, a former McCain advisor who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “A few soft, quiet few syllables from Steve Schmidt can be more terrifying than screaming from someone else.”

Earlier this year, Schmidt paused from a conversation in his office in Arlington, Va., and turned up the volume on CNN. Obama was delivering his speech to 200,000 people in Berlin, and Schmidt winced, acknowledging that Obama is a very polished speaker.

A map of the United States on the wall over Schmidt’s shoulder served as a low-tech tracking system. A photo of McCain was pinned to Ohio, showing the candidate was in the state that could decide the election. Schmidt saw McCain’s appearance at a German restaurant as far more valuable than the international acclaim showered on Obama’s turn on a German stage.

Soon after, McCain employed the classic tactic of turning his foe’s strength -- his oratory skills and popularity -- against him. Schmidt took a direct hand in the ads that ridiculed Obama by likening his celebrity to Paris Hilton’s.

“We had been discussing the necessity of digging underneath the Obama facade,” said Bill Kenyon, a partner in the firm Strategic Perception, which produces McCain’s commercials. “The celebrity thing is something that he suggested.”

Under Schmidt, the campaign is a tightly run operation. Previously, McCain allowed reporters almost unfettered access. Under Schmidt, the candidate went 40 days without a news conference.

Schmidt’s hard-nosed determination to control the slightest detail is irksome to some members of McCain’s staff. One senior aide referred to Schmidt as “message Nazi.”

There is, however, another side to Schmidt.

On the day after Palin addressed the GOP convention in a speech that energized the party’s religious conservatives, Schmidt showed up at a Log Cabin Republicans event and matter-of-factly told gay Republicans that they were “important to the fabric of this party” and that his sister and her partner were an important part of his life. “I encourage you to keep fighting for what you believe, because the day is going to come,” he said.

Patrick Sammon, the group’s president, said, “I don’t think anyone could imagine Karl Rove going to a Log Cabin event.”

The Log Cabin appearance aside, Schmidt’s pedigree is enough to give chills to Democrats in California, a blue state. In 1998, looking to make his mark as a consultant, the green 27-year-old made his way to California from New Jersey. He was recruited to run Tim Leslie’s race for lieutenant governor and later Matt Fong’s U.S. Senate bid.

“Pragmatic politics,” Leslie said, describing Schmidt’s philosophy. “His major concern is how you win the election. If there were two candidates and one was more conservative, I really couldn’t tell you which he would choose.”

Leslie and Fong lost in the Democratic landslide a decade ago. Schmidt headed East, where he rose in GOP circles. He became Vice President Dick Cheney’s spokesman, and oversaw President Bush’s 2004 reelection “war room” -- the cadre of operatives responsible for attacking Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry and responding to any charges against Bush.

Schmidt then was entrusted with managing the Senate confirmation of John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice in 2005, and Samuel A. Alito Jr. as associate justice in 2006.

With such credentials, it might seem odd that Schmidt found his way back to California. California First Lady Maria Shriver, niece of President Kennedy and one of Obama’s more prominent backers, set out to find the ideal campaign manager for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reelection. Several friends recommended Schmidt.

After Schwarzenegger won what turned out to be an easy reelection, Schmidt set up the Sacramento branch of Mercury Public Affairs, a New York-based lobbying, consulting and public affairs firm. He has said he has no intention of returning East.

The office is a few blocks from the Capitol, next to a tattoo parlor. A few vanity items on his office walls recount wins from his White House days.

One is a Senate roll-call card tallying the 78-22 vote to confirm Roberts. A second tally sheet shows the 48-42 vote for Alito. On one of the cards, Cheney scribbled: “Steve, You do great work. 2 for 2 on the Supreme Court. Dick”

A third keepsake, inscribed a few days after Bush’s reelection, reads: “Steve, I meant what I said Thursday. Victory would have been impossible without you. Best, Karl.”

What McCain might write after election day has yet to be determined.