Saturday, April 12, 2008

Unlike Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign, which this week suffered its second major staff upheaval in two months, Sen. John McCain’s inner circle is a tightknit band of senior advisers and longtime friends that has been working nearly friction-free since July.

Back then, the wheels of the bus — the Straight Talk Express — came tumbling off amid backbiting and second-guessing among the campaign’s senior staff. Spending had gotten way out of hand — the campaign tore through $25 million in just a few months — and the senator’s poll numbers had plummeted with renewed violence in the Iraq war, Mr. McCain’s signature issue.

So with input from longtime allies, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, Mr. McCain overhauled his campaign, cutting two-thirds of his staff and reshuffling his top-level advisers, some of whom took on major new roles. The nomination strategy, once a 30-state national campaign, was pared back to target just a few early primary states — all under the direction of new campaign manager Rick Davis.

The high-strung but soft-spoken Mr. Davis, 50, sits in a plain cubicle at the messy campaign headquarters in Crystal City, where boxes stand against the wall, some with charging BlackBerrys atop them.

“Campaigns are long, they’re hard, and sometimes management has a tendency to be cloistered away from the staff doing the work, but he’s always available for a question or to make a decision,” said the campaign’s chief spokeswoman , Jill Hazelbaker. “You make poor decisions when the campaign is being run in the bubble.”

Miss Hazelbaker, just 27, was a low-level player when she was drafted into a senior slot. She was Mr. McCain’s press secretary in New Hampshire, but after the staff departures during the summer, “she was the most experienced one left onboard,” Steve Duprey, a former GOP chairman in New Hampshire who has recently joined Mr. McCain on the road, said with a laugh.

“This is a campaign that because there was nobody else there, a lot of people had to step it up to get the job done, and she’s a good example of that,” he said.

Mr. McCain’s closest aide is Mark Salter, 53, who worked for years as the senator’s chief of staff and co-authored several of his books. Gruff and sarcastic, the goateed Mr. Salter is almost always at the candidate’s elbow, often whispering into his ear, or just outside a venue on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette in his trademark sunglasses.

“He has got McCain’s voice down pat, and he’s not only a terrific writer, he understands McCain and knows his thoughts and rhythms and is inside his head more than anybody,” said senior McCain adviser Charlie Black.

Mr. Black, 60 — sometimes out smoking with Mr. Salter — worked for Mr. Bush’s campaign in 2000 and never planned to be a senior member in the McCain campaign. A 30-year friend of the senator, he was an informal adviser before the summer shake-up, but stepped up to take a major strategy role.

It was Mr. Black who over the summer told McCain staffers: “For the next two or three months, the only press stories are going to be, “Why is John McCain still in this?’ ” said Mr. Duprey. “And he was right.”

Also behind the scenes is Steve Schmidt, another youngster at just 37. With his trademark shaved head, Mr. Schmidt — most well known for orchestrating California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rebirth in 2006 — keeps the candidate on message.

Like most of the others, Mr. Schmidt — who has worked for President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and maintains close ties with the White House — was an informal adviser in the McCain campaign but took over communication and strategy after the summer restructuring.

“He’s a brilliant tactician,” Mr. Duprey said.

Last but not least in the brain trust is Mark McKinnon, who was Mr. Bush’s media adviser in 2000 and 2004 and leads a tight team of advisers who produce the senator’s TV ads. With his lucky hat, Mr. McKinnon has brought success to the flagging McCain campaign, now flying high and flush with money — $15 million was collected just last month.

Republican strategist Scott Reed calls the inner circle “The Mod Squad” and said the campaign team has hit its stride just at the right moment.

“Every good campaign has got a strong nucleus around the candidate, and McCain’s put that together this cycle,” he said. But he noted that, unlike the 2000 campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, “This is a different type of circle. They don’t control the ebb and flow of everyone who talks to McCain — he carries his own cell phone and he dials up people all over the country every day.”

While the inner circle drives the campaign’s message and methodology daily, Mr. McCain continues to steer what his aides jokingly call “the pirate ship.”

“Look, let’s be clear: We do an awful lot of work, but he makes almost every decision, one way or another,” one McCain aide said. “He has, of course, empowered some of his top advisers to make big decisions, but when there’s a question, the senator makes the call.”

Still, Mr. McCain credits his staff with his success.

“I’ve got a great team around me — Charlie and Steve and Mark and Mark McKinnon and Rick,” he said last month at a barbecue on his spacious Arizona ranch. “We just like each other, like each other’s company, and we get along great.”

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