Steve Schmidt, the hard-bitten operative who on Wednesday took control of John McCain's campaign, was put in charge of Arnold Schwarzenegger's political organization after the governor's stinging ballot defeats in 2005. Then, like now, Schmidt's task was to impose strict discipline on a muddled campaign operation.
The bald and tough-talking consultant has never run a presidential campaign. But Schmidt, 37, played a senior role in President Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. And many who know him see his brand of methodical and hard-hitting campaign management as just what McCain needs.
"Fairly or unfairly, a lot of people have questioned whether the campaign message was as consistent as it could have been, and I think putting Schmidt in this new role will go a long way toward fixing that because that's what his background is," said Todd Harris, who was a spokesman for McCain in the 2000 presidential race.
Schmidt, who grew up in North Plainfield, N.J., lives in Northern California. He is a partner at Mercury Public Affairs, a lobbying and communications firm, and has worked for several losing Republican candidates. In 1998, he was communications director for Matt Fong's U.S. Senate campaign in California. The following year, Schmidt took the same job for then-presidential hopeful Lamar Alexander, now a U.S. senator from Tennessee.
In 2004, Schmidt ran the rapid-response media operation for Bush's reelection campaign. A protege of Bush strategist Karl Rove, Schmidt went on to work as a counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney. He spent a month in Iraq reviewing the administration's media operation there, and he served as the White House point man for winning Senate confirmation of Samuel A. Alito Jr. as a Supreme Court justice.
Schmidt returned to California to manage Schwarzenegger's reelection campaign in 2006. At the time, Schwarzenegger was reeling from the defeat of a string of ballot measures. The governor was highly unpopular, his political team in disarray.
"Like McCain's political universe, Schwarzenegger's operation was going in a lot of different directions until Steve stepped in and took control," said Dan Schnur, a veteran GOP strategist.
Thanks partly to a tight-knit bipartisan political team that included Schmidt and former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd, Schwarzenegger eventually romped to a 17-point victory in a year when fellow Republicans suffered a national wave of defeats.
Garry South, a Democratic consultant, said he initially assumed Schmidt was "a loony right-wing operative because he'd worked for Bush and Cheney."
"When I met him," South added, "it was pretty clear to me that despite my previous assumptions, he was a pretty pragmatic, steely-eyed political operator, and was not driven by ideology."
But given the poor climate for Republicans in 2008, South continued, McCain will "get his head handed to him, and there's not a thing that Steve Schmidt can do about it."
Harris, for one, disagrees.
"Schmidt is very aggressive, which is exactly what you want when you're the underdog," he said, "and there's no question right now that, in this environment, John McCain is the underdog."