Image: Senator John McCain's staffers Steve Schmidt, Mark Salter and Brooke Buchanan
Stephen Crowley  /  Redux Pictures
Senator John McCain's staffers, from left, Steve Schmidt, Mark Salter and Brooke Buchanan aboard the Republican White House hopeful's campaign plane on Feb. 1.
updated 7/8/2008 4:09:37 AM ET 2008-07-08T08:09:37

Senator John McCain’s campaigns have long been defined by internal squabbling and power plays, zigzagging lines of command and a penchant by the candidate for consulting with former advisers without alerting current ones, always a recipe for disquiet.

After a period of relative calm on that score, it is becoming clear that his campaign is once again a swirl of competing spheres of influence, clusters of friends, consultants and media advisers who represent a matrix of clashing ambitions and festering feuds. The cast includes the surviving members of Mr. McCain’s 2000 campaign, led by Rick Davis and Mark Salter; a new camp out of the world of Karl Rove, led by the recently ascendant Steve Schmidt; and on the periphery, the ever-present Mike Murphy, Mr. McCain’s strategist in the 2000 presidential race who has been dispensing advice to the candidate to the annoyance of the other camps, and is the subject of intensifying rumors in Republican circles that he is about to re-enter the campaign.

Mr. McCain is uncomfortable firing people or banishing them entirely. His orbit remains filled with people who have been demoted without being told they are being demoted, like Mr. Davis, who continues to hold the title of campaign manager even as Mr. Schmidt manages the campaign. Yet, Mr. McCain inspires uncommon loyalty in those who serve with him — hence the willingness of Mr. Murphy to consider coming back into the McCain campaign, despite his own rather brutal history of enmity with Mr. Davis.

Here is a guide to the forces and personalities to watch through the campaign and, presumably, into a McCain White House:

STEVE SCHMIDT A veteran of President Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004 who had been traveling around the country with Mr. McCain, Mr. Schmidt was sent back to headquarters and put in charge of, well, just about everything that matters. Mr. McCain characterized this as no big deal; others in his campaign said it was indeed a major shift as Mr. Schmidt in effect dislodged Mr. Davis.

Mr. Schmidt is working without compensation from the campaign, a way of signaling to people that he is prepared to return to his family in California should this latest shake-up not work. His ties with Mr. McCain are not as deep as those who worked in Mr. McCain’s first presidential campaign, and who are suspicious that Mr. Schmidt is something of a proxy for Mr. Rove.

MIKE MURPHY He has been in Mr. McCain’s orbit since he ran for president in 2000; it seems safe to say that few people understand Mr. McCain as well as Mr. Murphy does. He has on several occasions offered Mr. McCain blunt advice about how to fix his campaign. Mr. McCain has told two friends in recent weeks that that he would like Mr. Murphy as his senior strategist, and before the most recent shake-up that put Mr. Schmidt in charge, Mr. Murphy told at least one associate that he was interested in coming back.

It is not clear how Mr. Schmidt, among others, would react to that. Mr. Murphy and Mr. Schmidt had their differences when they worked together for the re-election of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, though by all accounts, those are mild compared with Mr. Murphy’s differences with other people in the various factions at Mr. McCain’s headquarters.

Mr. Schmidt did not return an e-mail message seeking comment. Mr. Murphy, while declining to comment about the possibility of his joining the McCain campaign, said that he admired Mr. Schmidt and that there were no differences between them.

“Steve Schmidt has been a friend of mine since I originally helped recruit him into the Arnold world back in 2005,” Mr. Murphy said. “Steve and I are friends, and we get along fine.”

One other potential hindrance to Mr. Murphy coming in: He is a founder of DC Navigators, a lobbying firm whose clients include insurance firms and the Indian Gaming Association, to name a few. Mr. McCain said he did not want any working lobbyists in his campaign. Mr. Murphy said his role at the firm was not as a lobbyist. “I’ve never been registered in my life,” he said. “I told my partners months ago that if I did McCain, I’d leave the firm.”

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RICK DAVIS Mr. Davis is nothing if not a survivor. He managed to emerge from the staff wars of the McCain campaign last year as the manager — escaping blame as the campaign collapsed under the weight of its debt and was forced to lay off most of his staff. Mr. Davis without question deserves some credit for helping to steer Mr. McCain from the brink of withdrawal to securing the Republican nomination. Yet his management (and survival) skills do not necessarily translate into what it takes to run against a candidate like Senator Barack Obama; Mr. Davis came under fire as Mr. McCain’s campaign became characterized by missteps and squandered opportunities. He lost power after Mr. Schmidt went to Mr. McCain and warned him that he needed to make changes in his operation, or accept the fact that he is going to lose.

KARL ROVE You thought we were going to write a story about the internal dynamics of a Republican presidential campaign without mentioning Mr. Rove? The chief strategist for Mr. Bush in 2000 and 2004, Mr. Rove is not directly involved in the McCain campaign, but his presence there can be seen in the number of his protégés who now hold central roles there. Mr. Schmidt tops that list; coming in a very close second is Nicolle Wallace, who was communications director for Mr. Bush in 2004 and in the White House.

All of this intrigue breeds discouragement among even those former McCain associates who do not dispute the notion that voters now might be getting an early glimpse of the messy, unstructured way in which a McCain White House might be managed. They are hard-pressed to explain why Mr. McCain tolerates this — or encourages this — or why he has trouble cutting ties with people who have not served him well over the years.

“I can’t answer the why,” said John Weaver, who was one of Mr. McCain’s closest advisers before being forced out in a shake-up last year. “It is just that way and for his own sake, he needs to finally, firmly decide where he wants to take this campaign.”

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times


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