Strategists Hope Schmidt Puts McCain's Campaign on the Right Track

Steve Schmidt takes over day-to-day operations from campaign manager Rick Davis.

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It was a long time coming: Today's shake-up of GOP nominee John McCain's leadership team follows weeks of harsh—and increasingly public—criticism by influential members of his own party who say they have been alarmed at what they have seen as the campaign's lack of focus and poor planning.

In elevating senior adviser Steve Schmidt to take control of the campaign's day-to-day operations from campaign manager Rick Davis, McCain turned to an aggressive strategist who helped engineer Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's successful re-election in California and who worked for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004. Davis will continue to serve as a top strategist and is expected to retain his title.

Top Republicans have been expressing frustration about the lack of focus of McCain's campaign, its failure to hit a consistent "message of the day," its lack of outreach to cultural conservatives, and poorly stage-managed campaign events. "His schedule has been unbelievable," said one strategist close to the McCain campaign. "They have him all over the place, no consistency—it's been incredible."

A key fundraiser for the party says that there has been great disappointment in the ranks of cultural conservatives over the lack of outreach by McCain. "Who talked to Franklin Graham first? Barack Obama," he said. "Who met with Rick Warren? Obama. It's silly." McCain, he said, has, for example, an "extraordinary record on Darfur," an issue that resonates with young evangelicals, but his campaign has not made that an issue within the conservative Christian community. The campaign has also suffered, said one strategist, from its reluctance to bring on board experienced hands from the Bush-Cheney world. Schmidt's promotion could signal what party leaders view as a welcome easing of that aversion.

It was nearly one year ago, on July 10, that the McCain campaign announced the stunning resignations of the candidate's top two aides—campaign manager Terry Nelson, a mastermind of President Bush's 2004 run, and longtime friend and chief strategist John Weaver. On that day, it was Rick Davis, then the campaign's chief executive officer, who took over as manager.

—Liz Halloran