Newest staff helps McCain campaign regain footing

For Republican John McCain, the group of advisers and staff trying to get him into the White House is his third campaign team in 14 months.

Unlike Democratic rival Barack Obama, who has had the same top aides since he started running for president early last year, McCain has had two staff shake-ups — one in July 2007 sparked by money woes and another almost exactly one year later prompted by the need to regain focus. The latest team is centered on a core group of aides who directed a spartan effort to get McCain chosen as the Republican Party's presidential nominee.

The key advisers are strategist Steve Schmidt, 37, and longtime McCain loyalist Rick Davis, 51.

"This campaign is in a strong position heading into the fall," said McCain communications director Jill Hazelbaker. "The Davis/Schmidt management structure deserves more than a little bit of credit for bringing back our mojo."

McCain has pulled nearly even with Obama in public opinion polls.

The latest changes include a more disciplined candidate and message, more centralized decision making from the McCain campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va., and sharper contrasts with Obama, said Brian Jones, the McCain campaign communications director before the 2007 shake-up.

Schmidt's stamp is evident on the new team, Jones said: "It's focused, it's disciplined, it's on message. It's hard hitting, with a pinch of levity as well."

Schmidt, a communications strategist for President Bush's 2004 campaign, runs the campaign's day-to-day operations. Davis handles long-range issues such as the convention, the campaign budget, the vice presidential selection, ad strategy, and the upcoming debates with Obama.

In summer 2007, McCain was behind in public opinion polls and hampered by lackluster fundraising combined with a fast rate of spending. Davis, who managed the Arizona senator's campaign in 2000, took charge and said the campaign would stress McCain's efforts to reduce federal spending and "winning the war against Islamic extremists."

Thrust into the underdog's role, McCain scaled back his national operations, traveled on commercial flights and spent more time trying to win voters one-on-one. That strategy helped in New Hampshire, where he repeated his 2000 primary win. He bested Mike Huckabee in South Carolina, then handled Mitt Romney in Florida. Subsequent wins in California, Texas and Ohio enabled McCain to nail down the GOP nomination by March 4.

As the McCain team began planning for the fall, Davis organized a campaign around 10 regions, giving managers in those regions autonomy over their operations. Republican strategist Rich Galen said that as the months rolled on, the campaign seemed to lack a unifying theme and needed central direction from McCain's Virginia headquarters.

Enter Schmidt, a veteran of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2006 re-election campaign and the communications strategy for the Supreme Court nominations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Schmidt had originally joined the McCain team on a limited basis as a senior adviser but got elevated to run day-to-day operations so Davis could focus on big-picture strategy. Sometimes called "The Bullet" because of his shaved head and his aggressive style, Schmidt had been a frequent presence on the McCain campaign bus and plane before his new role.

Galen described the decision to put Schmidt in charge of daily operations as more an "addition" than a shake-up.

"Davis became the chairman of the board," Galen said. "Schmidt became the chief executive officer."