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The Silver Bullet
At 37, Schmidt is one of the most forceful, successful and unconventional political operatives of his generation, running one of the most uphill GOP presidential efforts in decades -- yet he is hardly known outside political circles.
With a 6-foot frame carrying 225 pounds, plus a shaved head and an intense, clipped New Jersey style of speech, it's a little hard for him to stay under the radar. But try he has. He rarely appears on TV and avoids talking about strategy publicly. He would not be photographed for this story.
In fact, this was not at all how he planned to spend his fall.
A veteran of George W. Bush's 2004 campaign as a communications strategist, and well regarded for his instincts in shepherding Bush's nominations to the Supreme Court through the process, he was heavily courted by the top GOP presidential contenders last year. Mitt Romney sent him an antique chair to symbolize a seat at the table.
Schmidt was drawn to McCain, but planned on a limited role so he could have a life and remain in California, where he had settled after running Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2006 gubernatorial reelection campaign.
It never quite turned out that way. Schmidt was in the thick of things almost immediately, evolving into one of the Arizona senator's closest advisers. Then he joined McCain on the campaign trail right before the New Hampshire primary -- and never left. "I knew if we won New Hampshire I was not going home anytime soon," he says in a rare interview.
Last month, McCain asked Schmidt to take over the daily operations of an unfocused campaign that was languishing in Barack Obama's shadow. Frustrated Republicans saw an organization incapable of making the case for its candidate, switching themes and messages almost daily -- and failing to resonate with voters. Add to that a bad economy, a problematic war and an opponent who had turned into a phenomenon, and Republicans were privately writing McCain's obituary.
Schmidt wasted no time shaking up the campaign like a California earthquake. He centralized power at headquarters between himself and campaign manager Rick Davis, who has been overseeing the convention, fundraising and the vice-presidential selection. He made sure everyone understood their jobs and was communicating with each other. He insisted that aides stick to a closely controlled message, and he pushed for a more aggressive stance against Barack Obama.
Within weeks, McCain was ridiculing Obama's rock-star image in a provocative ad comparing him to Britney Spears, and seizing every opportunity to hammer him -- for canceling a visit to the troops, accusing him of suggesting McCain was a racist, painting him as an elitist -- all designed to make voters question whether he is ready to be president. At the same time, McCain himself has stuck to Schmidt's playbook with uncharacteristic discipline, even abandoning his daily freewheeling exchange with reporters.
Some loyalists complain that this new, more negative strategy is demeaning to McCain, and killing his trademark spontaneity and candor. But there is no question that it is working. McCain has new life, with national polls showing him dead even with Obama. Democrats are nervous enough to urge Obama to fight back.
"Since the changes, things are happening," observes Karl Rove, architect of George W. Bush's presidential races. "A guy who'd been in and out of the campaign for months told me he quickly saw a new crispness and order to the operation. He knew it when he walked in one day and there was a large calendar with daily message points plotted for several weeks -- a sign of strategic thinking that hadn't been so evident before."
"For the first time, there is a consistent narrative. . . . Steve brought extreme message discipline to an organization that never had it before," says Todd Harris, a political consultant who worked on McCain's 2000 presidential campaign.