THE GURUS | RUSS SCHRIEFER
The Selling of 'McCain 2.0'
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Russ Schriefer spent the first few weeks of 2000 driving around New Hampshire with a digital camera and a singular mission: finding a way to discredit John McCain with voters in the state's upcoming primary.
As a member of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's media team, Schriefer needed footage of his man on the attack against the senator from Arizona, his main competition for the Republican presidential nomination. When Bush declared at a factory in Pittsfield that McCain's economic plan would amount to a $40 billion tax increase -- based on a shaky assumption that McCain had flatly denied -- Schriefer had what he needed. Racing to a Manchester television station, he and a colleague reviewed the tape in the car and e-mailed a proposed script to campaign strategist Karl Rove.
A day later -- a virtual blink of the eye, given the lumbering process of making commercials at the time -- the "crash ad" was on the air.
"We kind of invented what is now the YouTube ad," Schriefer says.
The political landscape has since shifted, and with it the allegiance of campaign operatives who have their own set of mating rituals. The soft-spoken Schriefer now heads the media team for McCain, the man he helped Bush defeat seven years ago.
Schriefer and his longtime business partner, Stuart Stevens, were recruited by Mark McKinnon, the Texan who ran the media unit for both Bush presidential campaigns and is now an adviser to McCain. McKinnon told them he wanted "to get the band back together" and recruited another Bush veteran, Hollywood admaker Fred Davis. Other Bush alumni include campaign manager Terry Nelson, communications director Brian Jones, senior adviser Steve Schmidt and fundraising chief Tom Loeffler, a former congressman from Texas.
Schriefer jokes that their current candidate is new and improved. "We call him McCain 2.0," he says. "We've gotten some of the bugs out."
The updated model is employing an aggressive style more closely associated with the Bush operations of the past. McCain, who vowed to wage a positive campaign in 2000 -- until his contest with Bush dissolved into acrimony -- has in recent weeks taken hard shots at two other presidential contenders, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a fellow Republican, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
Schriefer dismisses the idea that the consultants are changing McCain's style. "No one has to nudge John McCain into straight talk," he says.
But the sharper edge and McCain's courtship of the party's conservative base have produced a marked change in tone from his freewheeling insurgency last time around. Schriefer, who will shape McCain's overall message as well as the ads, is a key figure in reconciling these apparent contradictions.
The arrival of Bush's former advisers has put an unofficial White House stamp of approval on McCain's effort, at a time when the Iraq war has rendered that a decidedly mixed blessing. Despite the animosity of their 2000 clash, McCain has emerged as the president's biggest backer on the season's two highest-profile issues: the war and the immigration compromise that all but collapsed in the Senate last week.
At the same time, the war's unpopularity and the president's depressed poll ratings mean that McCain, 70, has had to distance himself from Bush. McCain has repeatedly accused Bush of mismanaging the Iraq effort, even as he supports the current troop increase. He has complained about excessive federal spending, and he broke with the president in demanding limits on coercive interrogations of detainees.