02 September 2008

Sarge in charge

Over the last 2 months, it's been fascinating to watch Team Maverick take control of the race. In early July, McCain ordered a top-down reorganization of his campaign, reassigning campaign manager Rick Davis to a lesser role and eliminating the not-so-bright idea of having 11 regional managers share decision-making responsibilities. It was branded a simple re-delegating of duties, but in the following days, it became apparent that former communications director Steve Schmidt -- the big, bald fella with the Bluetooth, known to McCain as "Sargent," and at whom the candidate regularly barks, through clenched teeth, "Fall in!" -- was now in control.

The Senior Senator has benefited immensely in three ways.

First, Schmidt persuaded McCain to put an end to his famous question-and-answer sessions aboard the Straight Talk Express. These freewheeling interviews-by-committee, where McCain would opine on anything and everything, made McCain a media darling during his presidential run in 2000. However, in 2008, these sessions quickly became an opportunity for reporters to jump on any adverse soundbite and make it news. McCain's maverick reputation has been built on three things: The friendly, freewheeling style with the media; the endless town-hall meetings with voters where anything was fair game; and the legendary battles with the Republican establishment.

But in 2008, McCain wasn't being helped by endlessly riffing with the media. As the underdog in 2000, he used these sessions to his advantage, establishing a friendliness with reporters and using "free media" to the advantage of his severely underfunded campaign. Eight years later, however, as the presumptive Republican nominee, he's not hurting for press coverage. Although still the self-styled underdog, he's clearly the "establishment" candidate. And because he's carrying the Republican banner, the press is obviously much less friendly.

To be sure, McCain's relations with the traveling press have become much more chilly. But in this culture of soundbites and 24-hour news channels, it's been worth it. Save for his insanely stupid "$5 million" gaffe at the Saddleback Forum, McCain has been remarkable in his ability to stay on message and avoid verbal hiccups. Before July, he simply had been unable to hammer a consistent theme. But by curbing his riffage sessions with the traveling press corps and driving home a consistent theme, he has been able to address the uber-disciplined Obama's attacks in a much more effective manner.

By the way, many left-of-center talking heads -- Jonathan Alter, Joe Klein, Keith Olbermann, et al. -- have skewered McCain for ending these free-for-alls. Too bad. Alter and Olbermann's soundbite culture have made it virtually impossible to win an election by endless question-and-answer questions. 

Second, the timing of McCain's rollout of VP Sarah Palin was nothing short of brilliant. Twelve hours after Obama's historic acceptance speech in Denver, on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, the cable news networks were buzzing about ... McCain's yet-to-be-determined running mate. Schmidt's operation released a congratulatory ad on the night of the nomination -- right before Obama relentlessly attacked McCain in his acceptance remarks -- and then let the Changemaker enjoy his evening. The following morning, Schmidt's airtight crew had yet to leak the name of the VP, with speculation still swirling around half a dozen candidates, and the announcement to come around noon eastern. Schmidt successfully took what would have been gushing press coverage away from Obama's speech and focused it on McCain's VP pick.

And when McCain did make the choice, by the way, it was an outside-the-box pick.

Finally, Team Maverick has followed my heeding and used negative ads to make its point. Concededly, some attempts to paint the Changemaker as either a celebrity or out of touch have been juvenile and silly. But more often than not, McCain's team has capitalized on the Hopemonger's laughably thin record and conventional brand of Chicago-Hyde Park liberalism. As I've written here before, McCain must attack, attack, attack. 

He's begun to do that, and Joe Lieberman's speech last night, highlighting Obama's empty record devoid of any significant bipartisan accomplishments, should be a blueprint for the final 62 days. The more voters learn about the Pope of Hope, the less they'll like.

Concededly, Steve Schmidt is a Karl Rove understudy, and it's no secret I dislike Rove strongly. However, unlike Rove, Schmidt is less of a political adviser and more of a campaign manager. It's expected that the Sarge will return to his California home after election night, and that McCain's long-standing, close-knit team will remain after Schmidt leaves.

It's been a remarkable turnaround for a candidate who, in the current political climate, should be getting blown out. And Steve Schmidt should get the credit.

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