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The Selling of 'McCain 2.0'

(By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

"I hated it," Schriefer says.

He managed Rudolph W. Giuliani's unsuccessful New York mayoral campaign in 1989, leaving after a management shake-up. The next year, while at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he decided to join forces with Stevens, who helped teach him the art of filmmaking. Stevens, a graduate of the UCLA film school, had written episodes for such television shows as "Northern Exposure" and was a producer of the HBO series "K Street." A wisecracking Mississippi native who enjoys the limelight, Stevens is as colorful as Schriefer is restrained.

In a campaign memoir, Stevens once vented about the Republican National Committee's refusal to run an ad attacking Al Gore for accepting tobacco industry donations because a focus group didn't like it: "Who was going to sit there with a group of strangers and yell: 'Yeah, I love that spot where you rip the guy's heart out and eat it on camera! Can we see that one again?' "

Schriefer and Stevens, like most consultants, do plenty of corporate work. Their clients have included the Air Transport Association, AT&T, the American Health Care Association, Tyson Foods, Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. During the 2004 Bush campaign, their firm was also mounting an inside-the-Beltway campaign for the National Association of Realtors, which the firm credits with helping to double the lobby's membership in the past three years.

Schriefer says the McCain campaign will pay his firm a "modest percentage" for buying advertising time but disputes the idea that this will encourage him to push for more ads. "It's more important for us to win than it is to make money," he says.

The first presidential campaign the two partners worked on together was Sen. Robert J. Dole's in 1996. Dole (R-Kan.), who lost the use of one arm after being wounded in World War II, was one of the few candidates to talk to Schriefer about the adviser's malformed right hand, which has no fingers. Schriefer, who rarely talks about his birth defect, says it has not inhibited him, even when using a video camera.

Dole dumped Schriefer and Stevens after losing the New Hampshire primary, amid complaints that his message was inconsistent. But four years later, the two took up position in "the bunker," as the Bush headquarters in Austin was called. Even as they did their best to defeat McCain, Schriefer says, they regarded his campaign longingly. "We'd look at the McCain campaign and say, 'Those look like the guys who are having all the fun,' " he recalls.

McKinnon says he and other Bush strategists were "itchy" to run attack ads against McCain, but felt they could not as long as he stuck to a public pledge to stay positive. But amid ugly charges in the pivotal South Carolina primary, McCain broke his vow with an ad charging that Bush "twists the truth like Clinton" -- enabling McKinnon, Stevens and Schriefer to unleash a wave of negative spots.

"If he hadn't run that ad," McKinnon says, "McCain might have won South Carolina."

Making the Move to McCain

McKinnon was the first of the big-time Bushies to sign on with McCain last year. He agreed to assume a limited role if Schriefer would take the lead in making assignments and reviewing all scripts.

"He's a great combination of diplomacy and tough as nails," McKinnon says. "He's a good street fighter. You could easily be deceived by his easygoing demeanor."

The partners had feelers from other 2008 contenders before sitting down with McCain at his Senate office in January. They joked that they hoped he would have as much fun as in his 2000 bid for the White House, and McCain said he wanted to remain true to the spirit of that campaign. McCain also recalled his discussions with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the Iraq war commander, and said he would rather lose the campaign than modify his support for Bush's war effort.

For the moment, Schriefer and the media team are holding twice-weekly message meetings and are planning long-term strategy. In April, when McCain kicked off his campaign in New Hampshire, Schriefer was there, taping his events for later use.

Whereas Romney has spent millions of dollars on early television ads, Schriefer sees no need to be on the air for now. But his team has put several spots on McCain's Web site in which the candidate strongly backs the war and insists that Republicans "should be ashamed and embarrassed" over the rapid growth of government.

Former New Hampshire governor Stephen E. Merrill, a past client, says Schriefer will be a net plus for McCain because he knows the state so intimately. "While New Hampshire loved McCain last time because he was fresh and different and outspoken," Merrill says, "this time he's become the establishment candidate, and that's not a good thing for McCain. Russ will understand that and deal with it well."

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