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Analysis: Lack of message led to McCain staff shake-up

  • Story Highlights
  • John McCain's campaign has been "kind of adrift," Ed Rollins says
  • Insiders say severe campaign structural problems caused series of missteps
  • Bush campaign veteran Steve Schmidt to take over day-to-day operations
  • Campaign must convince voters McCain can address their problems, Rollins said
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. John McCain's campaign was on the verge of making big mistakes before it announced a major power shift, Republican strategist Ed Rollins said.

Before the retooling, the McCain campaign had been "kind of adrift," said Rollins, who is also a CNN contributor.

"They've sort of been watching the other side and not doing a whole lot. There's a lot of disaffection among Republicans across the country," he said.

McCain became his party's presumptive nominee in early March, while Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, didn't secure his nomination until June.

Amid growing concern about the ability to compete with Obama, the McCain campaign announced Wednesday that senior adviser Steve Schmidt would be taking over the day-to-day operations.

Rollins said Schmidt, a Bush campaign veteran, is a "first-rate guy."

Schmidt will report to campaign manager Rick Davis, but the campaign staff will report to Schmidt, who will be in charge of everything from messaging and communications to the political structure, organization and scheduling. Video Watch Rollins' analysis of the shake-up »

Davis will shift into what's being described as a more "natural role" for him -- the kind of duties he handled before last summer's mass firings in the McCain campaign. He will work on the vice presidential search and on planning matters such as the Republican National Convention.

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Schmidt's top priority, according to a senior aide, will be to stop "unforced errors in the campaign.

"He's a tough guy. He'll take charge of this campaign. They won't make the little mistakes that they've been making," Rollins said, adding that those little mistakes "are on the verge of being big."

"There really isn't a message. The message has sort of been 'I'm experienced and Barack Obama is Barack Obama,' as opposed to defining John. John is more than a war hero. John is a man who's had a long career," Rollins said. "The American public still doesn't know a lot about him -- what does he stand for, what kind of leader he's going to be."

McCain advisers privately told CNN that the overhaul is a result of missteps in messaging and scheduling that didn't give the candidate a good platform, and a political structure that many thought was misguided.

Now, Rollins said, the campaign must put forth a structured message.

"Don't use the Bush model of 'I'm a great foreign policy leader, but I don't really understand anything about economics.' He's got to relate to ordinary people and they've got to think in terms that can he fix some of the problems that are facing them," he said.

Rollins said the campaign needs to define McCain and define his opponent.

Schmidt had been a regular on the road with McCain until recently, when he quietly returned to headquarters to help fix what insiders admit are severe structural problems that caused a series of missteps:

  • Hiring, then firing, lobbyists who worked for the military junta in Myanmar, then creating a strict anti-lobbyist policy that caused several lobbyists to be dismissed from the campaign.
  • Poor vetting that led to endorsements by contentious figures like ministers John Hagee and Rod Parsley, which McCain didn't reject until months of bad press had gone by.
  • The campaign also paid for a TV ad to distance McCain from President Bush. The ad's script read, "John McCain stood up to the president and sounded the alarm on global warming ... five years ago." McCain later reversed his position and stood with Bush on the controversial idea of offshore oil drilling.
  • That, combined with an erratic schedule of speeches too late to make newscasts, and inconsistent themes against Obama, all have made for what senior McCain advisers admit has been a muddled message.

    Schmidt is also expected to shore up what some believe is a misguided political operation put in place by Davis -- a decentralized system of regional campaign managers who are not given clear instructions from the central campaign.

    Schmidt will be assisted by Mike McDonald, a fellow veteran of the Bush-Cheney and Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigns, who recently joined him on the McCain team.

    Mike DuHaime, Rudy Giuliani's former campaign manager and another longtime associate of Schmidt's, who has been working for both the McCain team and the Republican National Committee, will also be taking on more responsibility.

    At the end of the day, Rollins said, the success of the campaign is up to McCain.

    "A campaign manager is only a jockey. You've got to have a good horse. And the real question here is what kind of a horse is John McCain going to be," he said.

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    Rollins said McCain is a typical senator whose had lots of advice from different people and "historically, he's not been managed well by anybody."

    But, Rollins said,"I think he has great potential."

    CNN's Dana Bash contributed to this report.

    All About John McCainU.S. Presidential Election

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