One of John McCain's top lieutenants is getting a battlefield promotion. Steve Schmidt is taking control of day-to-day operations at McCain's presidential election headquarters in Virginia.
Campaign manager Rick Davis is keeping that title. But spokesman Brian Rogers says the 300 or so campaign staffers will report to Schmidt.
"Steve will have broad authority in terms of running the day-to-day operations of the campaign, including political and strategy and communications," Rogers says.
He described the organizational shuffle as a "natural growth" of the campaign. But it comes amid criticism in some Republican circles that McCain has been slow out of the starting gate, especially since he locked up his party's nomination three months before his Democratic opponent.
There have been rumors that former McCain strategist Mike Murphy might join the campaign. In an interview before Wednesday's shake-up, Murphy was noncommittal. But he agreed that there is room for improvement.
"Campaigns are amplifiers. And they sometimes have to choose what they amplify," Murphy says. "And I think the challenge to the McCain campaign ... is getting a simple message strategy that amplifies the best of McCain, which is that he is a different kind of Republican.
"And I think they do that to some extent, but I think it's a little murky. There are some mixed signals coming out of the messaging of the campaign. And I think the campaign could maybe use a little more of that focus going forward."
The man who has been tapped to provide that focus is no stranger. Steve Schmidt's shaved head was a regular sight on McCain's campaign bus, until he was called back to headquarters a couple of weeks ago. Schmidt was also a spokesman for President Bush's re-election campaign four years ago, and he ran California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-election bid in 2006.
Matthew Dowd, who worked on both of those campaigns, says Schmidt brings both operational skills and good instincts to the job.
"One of the things that's great about Steve is that Steve is just a sort of regular guy from New Jersey, and he understands real people — and especially working-class, middle-class folks — and that has always helped him in the campaign not lose sight of who the voters are that they need to affect," Dowd says.
Dowd also expects that Schmidt will add some much-needed discipline to McCain's political message.
"They've gone off track a number of times, and I think someone of Steve's ability is absolutely needed in having a plan and sticking to the plan and not letting the day's happenings change that plan," Dowd says. "And John McCain understands that, which is why Steve's role has been elevated."
Democrats were quick to seize on the promotion of Schmidt, who also worked for Vice President Dick Cheney. The Democratic National Committee called it more evidence that McCain would continue the policies of the Bush-Cheney administration.
Campaign manager Davis has also been a lightning rod for his role as a Washington lobbyist. With Schmidt in charge of day-to-day operations, Davis will focus on longer-term issues, such as convention planning and the search for a running mate. That's roughly the same role he held before the last big shake-up a year ago, when McCain's campaign was nearly out of cash, and his political future was in jeopardy.