RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
With just a bit over three weeks to go before the presidential election, we've been checking in with top strategists from both presidential campaigns. Last week, we heard from Senator Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod. Today, we hear from the man who runs the McCain campaign. Steve Schmidt is Senator McCain's chief operating officer. He's also a veteran of President Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. He joins us from the McCain headquarters just outside Washington D.C. Good morning.
STEVE SCHMIDT: Good morning, Renee. How are you?
MONTAGNE: I'm fine. Thank you very much. Now, your candidate did not campaign yesterday. He's preparing for Wednesday's debate. But vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin was in Ohio and she focused mainly on the positive especially how Senator McCain has taken on Washington. That is a big change from some of the incendiary language that has been coming out of the McCain-Palin rallies recently. Sarah Palin has regularly said some version of Barack Obama is palling around with terrorists and that's direct quote. And I was at a rally in New Mexico last week when Senator McCain asked who is the real Barack Obama? A man in the crowd shouted terrorist. Is the campaign backing off some of these attacks now?
SCHMIDT: Well, we're proud of the campaign we've run. It's been a positive campaign. It's been a campaign where we've talked about the differences with Senator Obama. Now, both campaigns have thousands of people in their crowds and we had one person yelled something inappropriate at ours and of course, we condemn it. You see that happened at Obama rallies. The difference is it seems that what happens in a McCain rally, it gets covered on television. When it happens in an Obama rally, it doesn't get covered. When you talk about Governor Palin's line, of course, referring to Bill Ayers - and let me be clear on this, Renee. The campaign and particularly John McCain doesn't much care about a washed up old terrorist like Bill Ayers whose organization bombed the Pentagon and the Capitol. But what is true and beyond debate in this race is that Barack Obama has been untruthful about the dimension of this relationship.
MONTAGNE: Unidentified Woman: Obama's blind ambition. When convenient, he worked with terrorist, Bill Ayers. When discovered, he lied. Obama - blind ambition, bad judgment.
(SOUNDBITE OF MCCAIN AD)
MONTAGNE: Now, this line of attack does seem to have galvanized the McCain-Palin supporters. But do you have any evidence that you're gaining traction among swing voters and modern Republicans or conservative Democrats?
SCHMIDT: I don't think any one line of criticism is something that you evaluate as, you know, is this tractionable(ph) with this group of voters or that group of voters. I do think it's an issue that speaks to Senator Obama's candor and is one that's important to talk about in the race. We are all running in a very difficult political environment. That's not a secret to anybody that's out there. I believe in this race, we are approximately six points behind. There's a lot of the media right now that's writing Senator McCain off from third or fourth time, which means we have him just where we want him in this race. If Barack Obama has a history of closing weekly in a campaign, Senator McCain has a history of closing strongly and...
MONTAGNE: So six points behind is - did I hear you right? That's where you want to be.
SCHMIDT: Well, I think that's where we - I think that's where we are today when you average together all the polls. While we've been striking there since. We have an ability to close that distance in the final weeks of the campaign. We'll be working hard to do that.
MONTAGNE: So far, John McCain has insisted that Barack Obama's former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, is off limits. Will attacks on Wright stay off the table in the coming weeks?
SCHMIDT: Yeah. There are certainly millions of Americans who have deep concern about that relationship. But Senator McCain has been clear from the earliest days of the campaign when the story first entered the American consciousness that he would not use this issue in the campaign, and that remains his position.
MONTAGNE: Let me ask you. Senator Obama has announced this morning that he's going to be giving a major speech unveiling his new economic plan while he's campaigning in Ohio. Polls do suggest pretty strongly that the economic crisis is helping Senator Obama and therefore, hurting Senator McCain.
SCHMIDT: Well, when you look at the race and American people come down to final 21 days in the campaign, they'll make a decision based on a lot of different issues. People are - right now, they're angry, they're upset. We are disadvantaged by virtue of having an art next to our name on the ballot in an election cycle where there's a lot of blame at the president, a lot of blame at the Republican Party. You know, Senator McCain is (unintelligible) man. The next four years wouldn't look anything like the last eight years. We believe that the American people, as they focus clearly on their final decision, we feel good about the possibilities of winning the race.
MONTAGNE: Karl Rove, famously, the architect of two Bush victories, startled a lot of people when he wrote on his blog just over a week ago - if the election was held today, Barack Obama would win. Three weeks until the election, how are you going to turn this around?
SCHMIDT: Well, you do what Senator McCain has done a couple of times in this race. You know, every pundit in this country wrote off Senator McCain - a year ago, this past August, when it came to the Republican nomination. And the way he got back in that race was one foot at a time, one event at a time, and that's what we're going to do coming down the stretch of this campaign. And he'll weigh out his plan to move the economy back into growth and prosperity, how to secure this country, and he's going to talk very clearly to American people about that as they get ready to make their decision with regard to the 44th president in the United States.
MONTAGNE: But just specifically, is there a state or several that Senator McCain has to win to win this election? He's behind in Florida at the moment.
SCHMIDT: Well, when you look at the states - you know, we need to win Florida, we need to win Ohio. We feel great about our chances to do that. We feel good about our chances to win in North Carolina or chances to win in Virginia. We look out across the Midwest at a number of the blue states that we need to pick up and we feel that we're competitive in these states. We understand that, you know, the day of the beginning of the financial crisis, we were ahead in this race. With the financial crisis, we have fallen slightly behind in the race and we have some ground to make up. The election isn't today. The election is in three weeks and we feel good about our chances to come out on top.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
SCHMIDT: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Steve Schmidt is a top strategist who runs Senator McCain's campaign. He joined us from McCain's headquarters just outside Washington D.C.
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