Whenever Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) needed an answer to a political question during long days on buses and planes with reporters during the GOP primary, he would turn to a linebacker of a campaign adviser.
“Sergeant Schmidt?” McCain would ask with an impish grin, turning to the cueball-headed, barrel-chested Steve Schmidt for input.
Often, Schmidt, his gaze set on his BlackBerry and his thumb relentlessly working its trackball, would barely look up when grunting his answer.
In turn, McCain would threaten his serious, unsmiling and on-message senior adviser with demotion to corporal.
Now, though, a year to the day after he laid off dozens of staffers in the campaign’s first major shakeup, McCain has again turned to his favorite NCO, giving Schmidt a battlefield promotion to commanding general at a moment when his campaign needed another dose of discipline.
Schmidt, who ran California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's reelection campaign and was a top communications aide in President Bush’s reelection effort four years ago, is taking over day-to-day operations from campaign manager Rick Davis. Schmidt will shape the campaign’s message, run its political operation and oversee most every facet of the organization, including the candidate’s schedule, policy statements, deployment of surrogates and coalitions.
“He'll be the maestro who conducts the symphony,” said McCain adviser Charlie Black.
A McCain insider said the change gives Schmidt “near total control of the campaign."
The shift was announced Wednesday morning at a staff meeting in the campaign’s headquarters in Arlington, Va., with Davis making the announcement that he would focus on long-range issues such as the Republican convention, selection of a vice-president and debates.
Schmidt, who had just recently returned full-time to the headquarters after spending most of his time with McCain on the road or with his family in California, responded by exhorting campaign aides with a speech that one staffer likened to a locker room pep talk out of the football movie, "Rudy.”
He also, according to another McCain official in the room, made a joke about the move being made official on the anniversary of the McCain’s last shake-up.
McCain will be elected president, Schmidt said, intoning the declaration by election night television news anchors 135 days from now, if campaign aides execute.
It’s a word that his friends and fellow political operatives frequently turn to in describing the forward-leaning, 37-year-old New Jersey native.
“The one thing that Steve prides himself on is very good execution,” said Terry Nelson, McCain’s campaign manager until last summer’s shake-up and a friend and colleague of Schmidt’s for over a decade. “He has a sense of how to hold people accountable so they’ll perform for him.”
During a meeting at the Bush reelection campaign, senior adviser Karl Rove gave him the nickname “Bullet” because of his bald head and because of his seemingly lethal impact.
But despite his intimidating visage, Schmidt has inspired a legion of 20- and 30-something loyalists who’ve learned dawn-to-midnight, smashmouth politics at his knee.
“Every campaign or campaign committee he’s been a part of has produced a whole new group of protégés, many you’ve never heard of but who are slugging away everyday in D.C. and in political arenas across the country,” said Brian Jones, who, like Nelson, worked with Schmidt in the first incarnation of McCain’s campaign.
Jones, who has worked with Schmidt on statewide and national campaigns going back to 1998, predicted that his impact “will be strong, and it will be immediately felt.”
“He’s fearless, and he understands how all the different parts of the campaign need to cometogether,” Jones said. “He’s part teacher, part manager. People are flocking back to the campaign to work for him.”
Jones counts himself among Schmidt’s proteges along with McCain’s new senior adviser, Matthew McDonald, Republican National Committee communications director Danny Diaz, Schwarzenegger’s communications director and deputy chief of staff Matt David, and two top communicators for candidates vanquished by McCain during the GOP primary, Katie Levinson and Kevin Madden.
“You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone - political friend or foe - who has seen Schmidt in action and hasn't stood in absolute awe of his ability to see through nonsense, develop a strategy and execute a game plan at one point or another,” said Levinson, who worked with Schmidt for Schwarzenegger and in the White House.
Adam Mendelsohn, a friend and business partner, says Schmidt has a “savant-like focus in terms of mental energy.” Mendelsohn said the new assignment came as a surprise, since Schmidt had bought a house in the Sacramento area, moved his wife and children there and recently opened an office.
“Most people end up in this position because they set out to,” Mendelsohn said. “Steve is there simply by circumstance. Because of his friendship and respect for Senator McCain and his sense of duty, this was something he had to do.”
Schmidt first made his name among the political class on Capitol Hill by serving as communications director at the House Energy and Commerce Committee and then at the National Republican Congressional Committee.
At Bush-Cheney ’04, Schmidt ran the huge communications apparatus day-to-day when Communications Director Nicolle Wallace, now also part of the McCain campaign, travelled with President Bush on Air Force One.
After Bush’s reelection, Schmidt expanded his portfolio. He held the sensitive post of counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney, helped shepherd two Supreme Court nominations and spent a month in Iraq trying to improve media relations for the administration. In 2006, he served as campaign manager for Schwarzenegger's landslide reelection, where he delved into campaign coalitions, finance, organization and strategy.
More recently, Schmidt has counseled professional Fortune 500 companies, Hollywood studios and professional sports teams as a partner along with Nelson and Mendelsohn in Mercury Public Affairs, which is part of Fleishman-Hillard International Communications. He leads Mercury's operations in California.
It’s his work for Bush, though, that Democrats seized on after hearing the news of his promotion.
“It's no surprise that John McCain would put a Bush-Cheney veteran in charge of his campaign since he's been promising a third Bush term and relying on money raised by President Bush and his friends,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Damien LaVera.
McCain’s campaign, widely viewed by Republicans as drifting and without a coherent message, has already changed in the weeks since Schmidt returned from the road.
He penned a memo last week that signaled a more disciplined line of attack was in the offing.
McCain, Schmidt wrote, was a selfless patriot who had a record of putting his country first. Of Obama, Schmidt jabbed: “He has never put his career on the line for a cause greater than himself.”
It was classic Schmidt – straightforward, forceful and concise. There are no subtleties, and social graces be damned.
In one revealing example of his no-nonsense style, Schmidt all but yanked the pen out of a reporter’s hand to jot down heavily anticipated Super Tuesday exit poll data as he took a call during a McCain campaign rally in San Diego.
And when he was deployed to reinforce McCain’s campaign message with a live cable television news appearance the night Obama wrapped up the Democratic nomination, Schmidt’ voice bellowed so loud in the back of the convention center where McCain was about to speak that those in the crowd turned to see exactly what the ruckus was.
His work habits are just as intense. At Bush-Cheney '04, he was in by 5:30 a.m. or so, and held a rapid-response meeting at 6:30 a.m.
“If I were a campaign on a budget," quipped David. “I’d hire Schmidt and a receptionist.”