By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Steve Schmidt will not budge, and Mark Salter is begging.
"Why do I have to do this if you're not going?" Salter, a close John McCain confidant, is whining to the man now running the GOP presidential operation. "Get up."
"I'm not going," Schmidt shoots back.
"Yes, you are."
"I am not. I do not want to do it."
" Come on. Dude. I'm not going if you're not going," Salter pleads from the doorway of Schmidt's small office at McCain headquarters in Arlington.
"I will not appear in the pages of GQ," Schmidt declares defiantly, referring to the photo shoot on campaign hotshots that the magazine is doing for the November issue.
Salter sulks out, and Schmidt jumps up to lock the door with a loud click.
"I don't need anyone knowing who I am," he mutters, almost to himself. "It's the thing I despise most about this job. I don't want to be in GQ. I want to go home."
* * *
Steve Schmidt has made a career out of not being a creature of Washington. If the 2008 campaign were an action film, he would play the tough-talking Steven Seagal character, an idiosyncratic hero who is duty-bound to rescue the desperate from burning buildings (which Schmidt literally did last Christmas), but who longs to retreat into his easygoing world of family and suburbia.
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.
Schmidt is a leader in a new class of professional campaign managers, who run the equivalent of hundred-million-dollar corporations overseeing thousands of employees and volunteers. They are in it for the win, not for a White House job, and engage in take-no-prisoners warfare. He is called "the bullet" -- for his swift and accurate aim at the target, as well as for the shape of his shaved head.
Schmidt often projects a combative partisan demeanor, but his allies insist he is no ideologue. He has referred to himself as a "raging moderate." In fact, sources say, it bothers him to be called a protege of Rove's, whose name became synonymous with the contentious partisan politics of the Bush era.
Schmidt's sister, his only sibling, is gay, and he has made it clear that he is appalled by the party's hostile attitudes toward gay rights. He urged Schwarzenegger last year to sign the California gay marriage bill, which the governor vetoed.
Friends and colleagues say he never pulls his punches with candidates. He told Schwarzenegger during his reelection bid to lose the leather coat, stop driving his gas-guzzling Hummer around the state, spend more time in Sacramento and start acting like the governor. He bluntly told McCain in June he was going to lose the election unless he brought some discipline to his campaign.
Like his counterparts in the Obama campaign, Schmidt finds himself running a presidential campaign unlike any other in history. He is up against a 24-hour news cycle, relentless bloggers and a mainstream media obliged to feed Web sites constantly, and he has adapted to this new reality. He curtailed McCain's media availability because he found journalists were more interested in filing hour-to-hour for the Web, rather than reporting more in-depth looks at the day on the trail. "There has been a transformational change in the way Americans get their news," he says.
Nonetheless, Schmidt says he won't allow the campaign to get thrown off by momentary distractions and pundits shooting from the hip. To that end, he and his colleagues have developed what they jokingly call the "Dave Gergen theory of the campaign" -- a metaphor for all talking heads.
Gergen, a veteran of four presidential administrations, is a frequent pundit on cable news. If senior members of the campaign disagree on a strategic move, they watch what Gergen has to say. They then do the opposite.Commander of the War Room
Schmidt grew up in middle-class North Plainfield, N.J., was an Eagle Scout, a tight end on the high school football team, and says he loved politics as far back as he can remember. The first presidential race he clearly recalls -- he was 10 -- was the Ronald Reagan-Jimmy Carter matchup. "You intuitively understood that there was something special about him," he says of Reagan.
He attended the University of Delaware but came three credits short of graduating because he couldn't pass a required math course. "I'd still be there," he says, noting that he has been diagnosed with a learning disability that makes higher math difficult for him.
Schmidt had a swift rise in politics, careening around the country to manage Republican congressional races in his 20s and coming up through the GOP staff ranks on Capitol Hill. He was catapulted to the top tier of operatives in 2004, when he landed the job of directing the Bush campaign's war room, monitoring the media and the opponent all day, every day. Then as now, he strove to define the opposition for the voters, and never let a news cycle to go by without a comment from his side.
Still, for someone who refuses ever to go off-message, Schmidt has forged good relationships with political reporters, and tries to address their needs while sticking with his plan. Reporters on John Kerry's plane in 2004 came to know him well, as he called them several times a day -- sometimes to offer a comment on the text of a speech he managed to obtain but that Kerry had not yet delivered. He is credited with pushing the campaign to relentlessly stick with branding Kerry as a flip-flopper on issues.
Those who work with him say he is a master of the details. Brian Jones, who grew up with Schmidt and has worked with him on campaigns, said that to prepare for debates, he would demand dry runs among the staff in the war room -- to anticipate what the opponent might say, and respond quickly. Staffers were assigned different floors at headquarters to simulate the varied venues they would work from on the night of a debate, and he would use a stopwatch to time how fast they could send an e-mail blitz to the media. His was a tight ship, and he was known to hang up on everyone during a conference call, to send a message if one staff member forgot to get on the call.
In truth, he mentored an army of young GOP professionals who adore him. Most are fanned out among local races around the country, in the White House or working for various public officials. "The heart of all campaigns is kids in their 20s, many of whom are in the early stages of work experience, and these are concepts not taught in college, but you have to learn in the real world," he says.
"He was like a big brother to me," says Matt David, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger who worked for Schmidt in 2004. "He made me earn my stripes, and I've followed him ever since."
In 2006, Schmidt went right from the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito -- which he managed from Dick Cheney's office -- to the reelection campaign for Schwarzenegger, who was in trouble. He had lost several important ballot initiatives, his popularity had plummeted, and he had little money to launch an aggressive campaign.
Schmidt's first course of action was to remove Schwarzenegger from all the props and sideshows that had caused the actor-turned-governor to be dubbed the "Governator," and to present him as a serious chief executive who was committed to the state.
Bill Carrick, the media strategist for Democratic challenger Phil Angelides, said Schmidt and company were effective in turning Angelides into a hapless politician with a series of ads that manipulated footage to show him walking backward.
"He is widely applauded for getting Arnold out of a mess," Carrick says. "In the end, he was able to restore Arnold's original appeal. The face of Arnold became less about ideology and back to the idea of bipartisanship."
Schmidt is aware that in running campaigns, he can be intimidating. On the Schwarzenegger campaign, he stopped attending the scheduling meetings because people were afraid to talk when he was in the room.
He and his wife liked the West Coast so much that they decided to stay put and raise their two young children in California.
Which brings us to the fire. Last December, unbeknownst to guests at a neighborhood Christmas party, the host's attic was in flames. Smoke slowly started seeping into the house, but not fast enough to slow down the party.
"People were still trying to get drinks at the bar -- it was unbelievable," recalls Kelly Resendez, the home owner. "Steve and another guy were responsible for getting everyone out of that house. . . . I was in shock, and here's Steve taking down pictures from the walls -- he saved all our family photos."
Schmidt was the last person out of the house.
"Not 10 minutes later the roof popped," says Resendez, "and the house went up in flames."
'My Happiest Moment'
Schmidt never saw himself being this involved in the 2008 race, and in fact, he thought he'd be back in California by now, back at his job as a partner in Mercury Public Affairs, a political and communication consulting firm. When McCain's operation imploded a year ago, he and Schmidt talked regularly by phone. But things looked grim. For most of the past year, Schmidt was an unpaid volunteer, only recently drawing a salary from the campaign.
He says he stayed around because of his affection for McCain, because he could not leave something midstream and because he believes McCain can win.
But he is unequivocal about his future in running campaigns: This is his last.
"The Internet has created a wave of venom that is very disturbing," he says of the e-mails and calls he receives. "People who run these campaigns have become targets very directly. Who needs it?
"My happiest moment is when the plane lands in San Francisco and you have lowered enough to see the rolling green hills of Northern California," he says, "and there is a level of happiness and joy that overcomes me. That is mirrored by the exact opposite emotion when I can see the approach to Dulles."