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McCain Puts New Strategist Atop Campaign

By Dan Balz and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 3, 2008

Facing growing dissatisfaction both inside and outside his campaign, Sen. John McCain ordered a shake-up of his team yesterday, reducing the role of campaign manager Rick Davis and vesting political adviser Steve Schmidt with "full operational control" of his bid for the presidency.

Schmidt becomes the third political operative in the past year to take on the task of attempting to guide McCain to the White House. A veteran of President Bush's political operation, Schmidt will be in charge of finding a more effective message in the Arizona Republican's race against Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, who leads in most polls.

In a telephone interview, Schmidt said that McCain faces a difficult challenge, given the overall mood of the country, but that he is encouraged by the race remaining relatively tight.

"There are 125 days left until the American people will decide the next president," he said. "Senator McCain is the underdog in the race. We suspect he is behind nationally five to eight points but well within striking distance. I will help run an organization that exists for the purpose of delivering John McCain's message to the American people." Schmidt is also expected to abandon Davis's plan to put roughly a dozen regional campaign managers in place around the country.

The abrupt shift in leadership, announced to McCain's staff yesterday morning, came after weeks of complaints from Republicans outside the campaign and growing concerns within it about the lack of a clear message, the cumbersome decision-making process, the sloppy staging of events, and a schedule driven largely by fundraising priorities rather than political necessity.

"There's not a cogent message," one Republican strategist said yesterday, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "They've been attacking Obama every day, but it doesn't tie back to an overarching theme that McCain believes in."

The problems crystallized this week, with McCain on a three-day trip to Colombia and Mexico, where he is talking about trade and drug trafficking, an exercise even some insiders considered a waste of the candidate's time.

"They've been playing this ripped-from-the-headlines game. Whatever is hot or interesting for the day is what they've been talking about," said one former McCain adviser who is no longer with the campaign.

Schmidt, who managed California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's reelection effort and was a top aide to Vice President Cheney, will have broad authority to revamp the campaign and its message in the coming weeks. He plans a renewed focus on government reform, a theme that fits McCain's brand but has been largely lost in the daily discussions of the economy and national security.

He will report to Davis, but all others in the campaign will report to him. Schmidt will have control over message, advertising, scheduling, advance work and the political operation -- every major area other than fundraising. Davis will retain control over that area and will focus more of his attention on the selection of a running mate and convention planning.

Schmidt's goal is a less bureaucratic campaign structure that will allow for faster decision-making and more outreach to individuals and groups that can be helpful to McCain's cause. But his biggest challenge will be to help McCain deliver a clearer and more consistent message, and to do so in the right places.

"It addresses the need to put a professional in charge of message," said John Weaver, who was McCain's chief strategist but who left in a shake-up in July 2007. "It is important that the campaign and the candidate respond to that in such a way so as to try to drive a message, which has been lacking."

The changes are an acknowledgment that the structure created in the weeks after McCain wrapped up the nomination has not served him well. One element that will undergo major changes is the layer of regional campaign managers, who were given significant autonomy over campaign activities in their assigned geographic areas.

Campaign officials have since concluded that the move was a mistake, and Schmidt is now searching for a national political director to oversee and coordinate the political operation.

Other personnel changes are in store. Nicolle Wallace, the former White House communications director who has already been involved with the campaign, will play a larger role and is likely to spend time traveling with McCain. The campaign has recruited Greg Jenkins, who oversaw advance work for the Bush White House, to take charge of the staging of McCain's events, which have been a sore point among some.

Several prominent Republicans expressed relief yesterday that McCain had moved to reshape his campaign. "McCain's inability to establish a pecking order among his brain trust is now history," one said. "Steve Schmidt makes decisions. He focuses. Buy this stock now. It is going up."

But skeptics remain, questioning whether the shift is sufficient to put the candidate on a winning path. One strategist wondered whether McCain was continuing to vest authority in multiple leaders, a recipe for continued frustration. Even after the move, he remains surrounded by the same small clutch of political advisers: Davis, Schmidt, former lobbyist Charles R. Black Jr. and longtime chief of staff Mark Salter.

Remaining on the outside are Weaver and Mike Murphy, a GOP consultant and McCain confidant whose advice the candidate still seeks out. Murphy praised yesterday's reorganization but said he has no plans to join the campaign. "The campaign is recognizing that while they did a fantastic job in the primary, there's always room to improve it," Murphy said.

Campaign officials see next week as a crucial test. McCain is planning to devote several days to his economic message, keyed to battleground states and supplemented by surrogates and efforts to get more media coverage in key markets.

Washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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