Elephants on parade

They spent months working on the fifth floor of a downtown building on the Capitol Mall. They oversaw one of the few successful GOP campaigns during the ‘06 midterm elections. And now the Schwarzenegger campaign team is packing-up shop and leaving town.

Exploratory committees for Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and U.S. Senator John McCain all actively have been recruiting Join Arnold campaign strategists and aides for their respective 2008 presidential bids. Part of the appeal of Join Arnold veterans is their backgrounds working on a high-profile campaign—and their experience with preeminent GOP strategists Steve Schmidt and Matthew Dowd.

Dowd has yet to announce whether he will join an ‘08 campaign. Schmidt, on the other hand, recently announced that he’ll be joining the McCain team as a senior adviser. Schmidt was the architect of the Bush ‘04 re-election and also transformed the governor’s less-than-stellar January ‘06 approval ratings into a landslide 17-point re-election—he earned a mid-six-figure salary, not to mention a rumored $500,000 November 7 victory bonus. The secretary of state has yet to release campaign-spending numbers that will confirm or deny this.

Only official spokespersons can go on the record, but many former Schwarzenegger team members went into detail about the ins and outs of campaign life. “Really, what a war room does—it’s all about information flow,” said one former Schwarzenegger aide who will be joining McCain’s team in the coming year. “Less than a dozen people” have hands-on experience with rapid-response communications, according to the source.

Foremost there’s Schmidt, who, during the Bush ‘04 run, took an unpopular war and turned it into an asset. Schmidt and Dowd perfected their spin during the Schwarzenegger campaign, making a Republican governor appear like more of a moderate liberal than the actual Democratic candidate. Now, a spin-doctoring, 24-hour war room is a veritable electioneering fad. Even Schwarzenegger’s administration employs war-room strategies, which they refer to as their “news room.”

James Carville and George Stephanopoulos dabbled with similar rapid-response strategies during the Clinton-era campaigns, as seen in the 1993 documentary The War Room, but the new era emphasizes “controlling the news cycle,” including blogs, which “can create a grass fire that spreads very fast,” according to another future McCain ‘08 aide. Blogs “absolutely” are relevant in a campaign war room, confirmed a former Schwarzenegger staffer, who said Join Arnold issued a “daily blog report.” It starts with “I just heard so-and-so say something stupid,” which leads to “leaking a story” to a media outlet or blog. It all sounds very simple, but the same source admits that “most people don’t understand” rapid response, including many campaign higher-ups.

Former Schwarzenegger campaign aide Robert Terra will be McCain’s war-room director. It also has been reported that former campaign communications deputy Matt David will be part of the McCain team. Former White House television director and Schwarzenegger campaign director Katie Levinson will join Giuliani’s team. “A few of us are going to different campaigns,” one former aide said, which “sort of cancels each other out. We’ll have to generate new strategies.”

As for the lower-echelon campaign workers, they will have to wait it out and ride the coattails of the colleagues. “I’m a bit anxious, but I’m patient,” one former Join Arnold staffer said of being in political-flack limbo. Most campaign workers took positions on the governor’s inaugural committee, but Schwarzenegger’s swearing-in takes place this Friday, leaving many with some time off until their next gig.

Their wait shouldn’t be long: Although Election Day November ‘08 may seem like a lifetime from now, don’t forget that the first Republican primary debate will be held in five—yes, five—months, on May 15 in South Carolina. And fund-raising events already are taking place across the country; Giuliani hopes to raise at least $100 million in 2007 alone, according to the New York Daily News.

It really is a war out there.