Steve Schmidt: The Man Behind McCain

If you want to really irritate Steve Schmidt (and seeing that he's 6 feet, 225 pounds, and can show a flash of temper, it's not recommended), just compare him to Karl Rove. The man in charge of John McCain's day-to-day presidential campaign is tired of reporters saying he's Rove's "protégé"—the implication being that he is willing to do anything to win. For the record: the two men go back only to 2004, when Schmidt, then a 34-year-old consultant, was hired to run George W. Bush's re-election war room.

Schmidt learned then what it means to play rough when your candidate is behind. Now, four years later, he is back at it. McCain is down in the polls, and the candidate has struggled to get a consistent message across to voters. When that happened to Bush in 2000 and 2004, Rove unleashed meaner speeches and uglier campaign ads. Under Schmidt's direction, McCain is doing the same. In recent weeks, as Barack Obama has pulled further ahead—the new NEWSWEEK Poll has Obama up by 11 points among registered voters—Schmidt has ordered a barrage of negative ads attacking the Democratic candidate. McCain's once sunny town-hall script has turned darker. Sarah Palin—whom Schmidt helped persuade McCain to pick as his running mate—is playing her Schmidt-sanctioned pit-bull role with great success. She often works crowds into an anti-Obama frenzy. (During a Palin speech in Florida last week, a man in the audience allegedly shouted, "Kill him!" The Secret Service is investigating.)

In GOP circles, Schmidt's nickname is "The Bullet," both for his gleaming shaved head and the way he relentlessly seeks out his target. (When he can, he lets off steam at the gym by practicing Ultimate Fighting techniques.) His specialty is message control, something McCain, a meandering speaker, has worked to master. Schmidt's signature practice is to pick a simple message and repeat it day after day until it begins to sink in with the public. In Obama's case, it's that he is an empty celebrity who lacks the gravitas to lead. The rock-star ad comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton? That was all Schmidt. "He may be the best pure message consultant I've ever worked with, and I've worked with every big-deal political consultant," says Mark McKinnon, a former McCain adviser. "He can focus like a monk in a hurricane. And while he can whip up a storm of tactics to confuse and distract the opposition, he thinks very strategically." It's not tough to see why the Rove comparison keeps cropping up.

But unlike Rove, who appears to relish and even play up his Prince of Darkness rep, Schmidt—who declined to be interviewed for this story—seems genuinely pained that this is the way things have turned out. He isn't pure or a dreamy-eyed idealist; he was hired to win, and he has shown he's not averse to punching or getting elastic with facts. In politics, no prize goes to the noble loser. That doesn't mean he has to like being known as a practitioner of the political dark arts. Schmidt came to work for McCain with a very different vision of what big-league politics could be—and it didn't look anything like the nasty and brutish campaign he now finds himself working like hell not to lose.

After Bush won in '04, Schmidt took a job at the White House working for Dick Cheney. The vice president had the worst persona in politics—his popularity was in the low 20s—and Schmidt was given the unenviable task of giving the dour, secretive vice president a personality makeover. "It's gratifying to work for somebody who doesn't measure accomplishment by the temporary state of public-opinion polls," Schmidt told The New York Times in November 2005. But privately, says a friend who declined to be quoted talking about personal conversations, Schmidt found the job maddening. The vice president ignored Schmidt's attempts to get him better treatment in the press. Schmidt, this friend says, was mystified that Cheney seemingly didn't care at all about his image.

When Maria Shriver, wife of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, asked Schmidt if he would run his 2006 reelection campaign, Schmidt accepted immediately. Arnold's image was badly in need of repair. His bullying, confrontational style had worn thin, and he was sinking in the polls. Schmidt forbade Schwarzenegger from driving his beloved Hummer in the middle of an energy crisis and told him to stop picking public fights with his political opponents just for the fun of it.

The consultant recast the governor as a reformer eager to work with Democrats to revive the state's economy. Schmidt's message, which the campaign repeated relentlessly: "Cooperation." Schwarzenegger won with 56 percent of the vote, bolstered by large numbers of moderate Democrats. (Schmidt's own politics are sometimes to the left of his party. His only sister is gay, and during the GOP convention this summer he gave a speech to the Log Cabin Republicans urging them to keep pushing the party to endorse gay rights. "I admire your organization," he said. "Keep fighting for what you believe because the day is going to come.")

Schmidt never wanted to get back into presidential politics. But he admired McCain's willingness to buck convention and go up against his own party, and joined the Arizona senator as an unpaid adviser. He worked from home in California, where he lives with his wife (a former Navy nurse) and two young kids. At the time Schmidt joined up, McCain's campaign was flailing. The candidate was torn: should he court moderates who wanted to see the straight-talking McCain of the 2000 election, or try to repair his strained relationship with the conservative base? In the summer of 2007, McCain shook up his campaign and cleared out much of the senior staff. He asked Schmidt to help restore order. Schmidt urged McCain to play to his strengths as a war hero with worldly experience, and sent him out on a "No Surrender" tour— a series of town-hall meetings pegged to an Iraq withdrawal vote in the Senate that allowed McCain to talk up his support of the surge. McCain emphasized his position on Iraq all through the fall and winter. His win in the New Hampshire primary brought him back from the dead.

Another staff shake-up in June gave Schmidt more power to direct the campaign. Rick Davis remained as campaign manager, but McCain transferred some of Davis's duties to Schmidt, who took charge of the campaign's daily operation. In the weeks that followed, there were noticeable changes in McCain's world. Schmidt brought in television pros to make McCain's dreary, underlit events more telegenic. He pushed McCain to stop winging his stump speech and stick to a script.

Schmidt warned McCain that if he was serious about winning the nomination and the White House, he had to stop hanging out with reporters on the back of the bus. This was a tough sell. McCain joked that the press was his "base." Throughout the spring, McCain had talked about the day when he would have his own campaign plane outfitted with a couch for relaxed interviews. Schmidt told him that journalists were not his friends. "The press will turn on you," Schmidt said, according to a senior campaign aide who wouldn't be named talking about a private conversation. McCain thought he was being ridiculous, but changed his mind after an abortion-rights group made an attack ad using news footage of him hemming and hawing over a birth-control question on the bus. After that, reporters found themselves on the outs. During the summer, under Schmidt's insistence, the candidate went 40 days without a press conference.

McCain once hoped that this would be a more noble campaign. While Obama and Hillary Clinton dickered over the Democratic nomination, McCain showed his softer side, embarking on a tour of "forgotten" parts of the country—starting in Selma, Ala. But after the political conventions, Obama and McCain were still virtually tied in the polls.

Schmidt often blames the media for McCain's troubles, saying reporters have turned on his boss while giving Obama a free ride. In a conference call with reporters last month, he lit into The New York Times, which had written a story detailing Rick Davis's ties to Fannie Mae. "Let's be clear and honest with each other," Schmidt bellowed, his anger rising with every syllable. "Whatever The New York Times once was, it is today not by any standard a journalistic organization. It is a pro-Obama advocacy organization that every day attacks the McCain campaign, attacks Governor Palin and excuses Senator Obama."

When McCain's poll numbers began sinking after the collapse of the financial markets, the campaign, at Schmidt's urging, took on a harder edge. McCain and Obama have now settled into a mean-spirited and depressingly familiar tit-for-tat. The McCain camp implicitly questions Obama's patriotism and honesty because of his association with former Weatherman Bill Ayers. Meanwhile, Obama's campaign is making McCain out as confused, erratic and angry. On Friday, McCain, perhaps feeling things had gotten out of hand, called Obama a "decent person" and told an audience they had no need to fear if he were elected. The line drew loud boos from the Republican crowd.

Privately, Schmidt's friends say he has expressed worry about how he will be viewed after the campaign. "He does not desire to go through life with the tag of Karl Rove disciple attached to him," says one friend who asked not to be named talking about private conversations. "He has a life to go back to that has nothing to do with politics … But he also wants to win."

Some McCain aides are concerned Schmidt risks alienating independents and moderates by going so tough on Obama and seeming to contradict the kind of candidate McCain used to be. "I worry that we are talking too much about Obama, and not about how a President John McCain would be," says a close McCain friend who asked for anonymity when criticizing the campaign. "We've given Obama an opening to act like he's the bigger person, the better candidate … John just doesn't look happy right now."

But with just a few weeks left until Election Day, says McKinnon, there's not much else he can do. "I think the navigational route to success for McCain is very narrow or impossible," he says. "Schmidt has considered every strategic option available and chosen the only course with any real chance to succeed. His job is to win, not make the press or former McCain consultants happy."

The 20-hour days are starting to catch up with Schmidt. He looks haggard and exhausted. "Fun Steve is dead," he joked grimly last week. On Monday, he slumped in a chair and closed his eyes while waiting to board the campaign plane. His face, and his head, were in need of a shave. "Twenty-nine days," he mumbled quietly to himself. "Twenty-nine days."