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The Selling of 'McCain 2.0'
When the 2004 Bush campaign tapped him as manager of the Republican convention in New York, Schriefer pushed hard for speakers to attack Sen. John F. Kerry after a Democratic convention that was largely positive. That approach "made some people nervous," recalls former party chairman Ed Gillespie. "But Russ said: 'We have to highlight the differences. We can't just talk about why President Bush's policies are good.' "
He was also determined to turn it into a better TV show. Schriefer put party operatives on the floor in the guise of "reporters" interviewing delegates, and he banned the practice of two or three people introducing star speakers such as Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"It takes all the sizzle out of it," he says. "It's like saying, 'Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you about the Rolling Stones -- great band, been around a long time.' "
Soon after the convention, Schriefer was on a conference call with other Bush strategists when someone mentioned having television footage of Kerry engaging in a favorite pastime: windsurfing.
"That's an ad," Schriefer declared, but he was greeted by puzzled silence.
"Everyone kind of scratched their heads and didn't quite get it," Stevens recalls.
Undeterred, Schriefer banged out a script in an hour and finished editing a commercial that night, showing Kerry, in a wet suit, heading right, left and back again as a narrator accused him of moving "whichever way the wind blows." In the campaign's final weeks, the mocking ad came to symbolize Bush's charge that Kerry was untrustworthy. Some Kerry staffers felt that their candidate had handed the president's team a gift.
"It very simply encapsulated what they had already driven into people's minds, that John Kerry was a flip-flopper who couldn't be trusted," says Stephanie Cutter, Kerry's former spokeswoman. "I'm more upset we gave them the opportunity than that they took it."
Schriefer quietly produced at least half of Bush's commercials in 2004, and the great majority consisted of attacks on Kerry. But while voters tend to decry such negativity, strategists remain wedded to the tactic for a simple reason: It works.
'It's Not About Him'
Schriefer, 49, has been hanging around Republican politics since attending Manhattan College in the Bronx. But unlike Stevens, McKinnon and many other political strategists, he keeps a low profile and almost never appears on television.
"He's not a big self-promoter," Gillespie says. "He's very old-school that way -- it's not about him."
Schriefer, the son of a Long Island butcher, got his start working for two Republican House members and was Mid-Atlantic political director for George H.W. Bush in the 1988 campaign. He became a lobbyist but soured on the profession after being asked to defend a product that harmed wildlife.