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Steering the McCain Campaign, a Lot of Old Bush Hands

By Anne E. Kornblut and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 22, 2008

When Gov. Sarah Palin flew home to Alaska for the first time since being named the Republican vice presidential nominee, she brought along at least half a dozen new advisers to conduct briefings, stage-manage her first television interview and help her prepare for a critical debate next month.

And virtually every member of the team shared a common credential: years of service to President Bush.

From Mark Wallace, a Bush appointee to the United Nations, to Tucker Eskew, who ran strategic communications for the Bush White House, to Greg Jenkins, who served as the deputy assistant to Bush in his first term and was executive director of the 2004 inauguration, Palin was surrounded on the trip home by operatives deeply rooted in the Bush administration.

The clutch of Bush veterans helping to coach Palin reflects a larger reality about Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign: Far from being a group of outsiders to the Republican Party power structure, it is now run largely by skilled operatives who learned their crafts in successive Bush campaigns and various jobs across the Bush government over the past eight years.

The team has been assembled and led by Steve Schmidt, a sharp-witted, low-key strategist who has emerged as the campaign's day-to-day operations chief after the ouster of a group of sometimes undisciplined McCain loyalists. Schmidt's operation is tightly run and hard-nosed -- made up of policy advisers, communications experts, advance people and lower-level aides, many of them old friends who have worked together for the last eight years, and whose presence lends a familiar vibe to the Palin operation.

Republicans have been heartened by the effectiveness of the new McCain organization, which has helped put McCain back in serious contention for the White House, causing restlessness among Democrats who believed the race was Sen. Barack Obama's to lose. Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman, expressed pride at what her former colleagues have been able to accomplish.

"We had a great team -- they're the best in the business, and I'm sure the campaign feels fortunate to have them," Perino said.

Yet others, including some sympathetic Republicans, have begun to quietly question whether McCain and Palin are well served by strategists so firmly anchored in the Bush establishment when the candidates are presenting themselves as a "team of mavericks" and agents of change. One Republican with long-standing ties to the Bush administration described the situation as a paradox in which Palin is especially vulnerable.

"If the McCain campaign is trying to prop up Palin as its change agent, and its inoculation against the 'third Bush term' rap, then why on earth is she surrounded by a cast of Bush advisers?" said the Republican loyalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Since she's been selected, every single one of the senior aides that she's brought on board had prominent roles in Bush's White House or on his campaigns, or both."

While Schmidt has imposed a degree of discipline on the campaign that did not exist during McCain's dark hours in the primary season -- and Palin seems to have taken to that structure -- other strategists with reputations for independent thinking who once surrounded McCain have been sidelined. John Weaver, who used to serve as McCain's top political adviser, is among them. He said McCain's reliance on Bush vets is logical.

"If you're going to fill a campaign out with experienced people, the last two general elections were won by someone named Bush," Weaver said. "Where else would they have come from?"

The ranks of the McCain-Palin team are now full of those veterans. Nicolle Wallace, Mark Wallace's wife, was communications director at the White House and is now offering senior-level communications expertise to both McCain and Palin (and joined Palin on her Alaska trip). Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who served as chief economist for Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, is now McCain's domestic policy adviser (and accompanied Palin to Alaska as well). Bush confidant Mark McKinnon stopped formally advising McCain once Obama became the Democratic nominee -- but he, too, is continuing to advise the group and crafted Cindy McCain's convention speech. A former Bush speechwriter, Matthew Scully, wrote Palin's convention speech.

Some of those now working for McCain-Palin have overcome past political conflicts to join the team. Eskew was once reviled by McCain loyalists for his role running Bush's 2000 primary campaign in South Carolina; he not only joined Palin on her trip home to Alaska but also is serving as one of her closest aides. Stephen E. Biegun, a former member of Bush's National Security Council, was on the trip, too; he is helping give Palin foreign policy briefings.

Palin spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt worked on the Bush campaigns and, more recently, at the Republican National Committee. Two other Palin press officers, Maria Comella and Ben Porritt, worked on Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. W. Taylor Griffin, who worked on the 2004 campaign, is helping manage Palin's communications effort in Alaska. Another Bush advance pro, Chris Edwards, is helping to stage-manage Palin's appearances around the country.

It is not clear whether Palin will bring much of an outside apparatus with her at all, apart from an aide or two from Alaska. Comella did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

While a handful of McCain's longtime allies -- including his closest aide, Mark Salter, and two former lobbyists, Rick Davis and Charlie Black -- continue to hold senior posts in his campaign, many of his advisers from his first presidential bid now play tangential roles at best. In addition to Weaver, McCain's 2000 campaign manager, Michael Murphy, and press adviser Todd Harris are largely out of the McCain circle. The housecleaning, aides said, has been conducted largely by Schmidt, whose own Bush credentials run deep: He helped run the communications shop in the 2004 campaign and went on to work for Vice President Cheney and to shepherd the president's controversial nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court. Schmidt then ran California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's successful reelection campaign before withdrawing from national politics -- until he joined the McCain campaign in December 2006.

The personnel shift has become a cause of distress for some Republicans, who had hoped for a new brand of Republicanism to take hold, fueled by players who had experience outside Washington. "It's insane to me that at the same time that it's running saying it's not going to be the Bush administration, this campaign looks like the Bush campaign on steroids," said one Republican strategist.

No parallel exists on the Democratic side -- where the last White House team dissolved with President Bill Clinton's departure in 2001. And in a Democratic Party that has long been divided between Clinton people and non-Clinton people -- with most of the old Clinton hands working on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential bid until three months ago -- Obama has wound up with an inner circle whose members have never worked in the West Wing.

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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