By Jim Rutenberg and Adam Nagourney
Published: September 7, 2008
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ST. PAUL: It was what aides to Senator John McCain describe as probably the worst night of his campaign. As Senator Barack Obama claimed the Democratic nomination before a cheering sea of faces on national television, McCain countered with a lackluster speech in a half-empty hall, posed in front of a pea-green screen that became fodder for late-night comedy.
Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to McCain who worked on President George W. Bush's campaign in 2004, could barely hide his fury in the coming days, as he announced — to anyone who would listen — that he would personally make certain the McCain campaign would never again embarrass McCain.
Rove said Schmidt's increased authority — which came about after what amounted to a coup by Schmidt and other McCain aides with ties to the 2004 campaign, that gave him equal status with the campaign manager, Rick Davis — has been the best thing to have happened to McCain.
"Since the elevation of Schmidt and his new responsibilities, he's given the campaign a new focus and energy and drive that's been very impressive," Rove said. "They've had a much better July and August than April and May."
Still, the new tone has been jarring to some veterans of McCain's presidential run in 2000 who worry that the campaign exudes a cynicism that undercuts the senator's old reputation for "straight talk" and a more elevated style of politicking. On a number of occasions, McCain's campaign advertisements have been described by campaign watchdog organizations as false or misleading, particularly those attacking Obama on tax votes.
And the level of aggressiveness and risk-taking advocated by the hard-charging Schmidt leads to misses as well as hits; it certainly stands in contrast to the more orderly, controlled Obama campaign.
"It's quite different, often strikingly so, sometimes alarmingly so," Todd Harris, who was an adviser to McCain's 2000 campaign, said of the tone now compared with the tone then. "But it's important to realize that we lost in 2000, so I'm not sure we're in any position to give lectures about how to effectively win a national election with John McCain."
Schmidt is not quite a grand political strategist or tactician like Rove. His role for Bush in 2004 was running the war room — orchestrating often savage attacks on opponents, responding instantly to breaking news, digging up damaging information and pushing back on any criticism — and that shoot-first mentality infuses the culture of the retooled McCain campaign.
But with a drill sergeant's hectoring and a football coach's motivating, Schmidt, a thick tower of man with a shaved head who can go from jovial to belligerent in an instant, has largely imposed on McCain's once loose and feuding campaign the Bush tenets for success: relentless consistency in a combative message honed to disqualify opponents, hammered home by a campaign with clean lines of command.