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He's the driving force behind McCain

CAMPAIGN '08: MIXING POLITICS, DRAMA

Steve Schmidt shook up the Republican's campaign with a strategy that has left many heads spinning.

October 06, 2008|Dan Morain and Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writers

On the day after Palin addressed the GOP convention in a speech that energized the party's religious conservatives, Schmidt showed up at a Log Cabin Republicans event and matter-of-factly told gay Republicans that they were "important to the fabric of this party" and that his sister and her partner were an important part of his life. "I encourage you to keep fighting for what you believe, because the day is going to come," he said.

Patrick Sammon, the group's president, said, "I don't think anyone could imagine Karl Rove going to a Log Cabin event."

The Log Cabin appearance aside, Schmidt's pedigree is enough to give chills to Democrats in California, a blue state. In 1998, looking to make his mark as a consultant, the green 27-year-old made his way to California from New Jersey. He was recruited to run Tim Leslie's race for lieutenant governor and later Matt Fong's U.S. Senate bid.

"Pragmatic politics," Leslie said, describing Schmidt's philosophy. "His major concern is how you win the election. If there were two candidates and one was more conservative, I really couldn't tell you which he would choose."

Leslie and Fong lost in the Democratic landslide a decade ago. Schmidt headed East, where he rose in GOP circles. He became Vice President Dick Cheney's spokesman, and oversaw President Bush's 2004 reelection "war room" -- the cadre of operatives responsible for attacking Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry and responding to any charges against Bush.

Schmidt then was entrusted with managing the Senate confirmation of John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice in 2005, and Samuel A. Alito Jr. as associate justice in 2006.

With such credentials, it might seem odd that Schmidt found his way back to California. California First Lady Maria Shriver, niece of President Kennedy and one of Obama's more prominent backers, set out to find the ideal campaign manager for Arnold Schwarzenegger's reelection. Several friends recommended Schmidt.

After Schwarzenegger won what turned out to be an easy reelection, Schmidt set up the Sacramento branch of Mercury Public Affairs, a New York-based lobbying, consulting and public affairs firm. He has said he has no intention of returning East.

The office is a few blocks from the Capitol, next to a tattoo parlor. A few vanity items on his office walls recount wins from his White House days.

One is a Senate roll-call card tallying the 78-22 vote to confirm Roberts. A second tally sheet shows the 48-42 vote for Alito. On one of the cards, Cheney scribbled: "Steve, You do great work. 2 for 2 on the Supreme Court. Dick"

A third keepsake, inscribed a few days after Bush's reelection, reads: "Steve, I meant what I said Thursday. Victory would have been impossible without you. Best, Karl."

What McCain might write after election day has yet to be determined.

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dan.morain@latimes.com

bob.drogin@latimes.com

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