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Former McCain Campaign Chairman Steve Schmidt Assesses The Three Frontrunners

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HH: I am joined now by Steven Schmidt, former campaign manager for John McCain. Steve, welcome back, it’s great to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

SS: Hey, it’s great to be with you, Hugh. Thanks for having me.

HH: Tell me what you think Mitt Romney needs to do to get his mojo back.

SS: First thing he needs to do, Hugh, is just get stable in the race, to stop the freefall with the poll numbers, release the taxes, have a strong debate performance tonight, and really prosecute the case against Newt Gingrich on this question of electability, which is one of the areas he lost in South Carolina. And fundamentally, far more important for important for Mitt Romney than losing the race in South Carolina was losing the notion that he’s the more electable of the candidates in the Republican primary race. And that’s what he has to get back, because that is what is the foundation of his campaign.

HH: Steve Schmidt, what does Newt Gingrich have to do to maintain his momentum, which is cresting today?

SS: He has to demonstrate stability. He doesn’t have a lot of room to be erratic, to demonstrate some of the wild swings that you’ve seen by Newt Gingrich throughout his career, throughout the campaign. He needs to consolidate the notion that in fact he can win a race against Barack Obama. You have to, if you’re Newt Gingrich, you want to continue the work of trying to become the chief alternative to Romney, and trying to be the chief alternative to Romney through an ideological prism as the conservative candidate in the race.

HH: And how about Rick Santorum? Is there anything he can do to catapult himself back into the alternative chair?

SS: Well, I think if you’re Rick Santorum, you’re sitting there, you’re looking at the race, and you’re thinking two things. You’re looking at Mitt Romney and you’re saying conservatives are rejecting the Romney candidacy, and then you’re looking at Newt Gingrich, and you’re saying well, Newt Gingrich as the capacity to pull the pin and go kaboom at any second on any given day. And I’m the only other plausible candidate left in the race. Presidential campaigns end, Hugh, when they run out of money. So I think as long as Rick Santorum has enough money to keep going, he’ll keep going. I think it’s difficult to see if he doesn’t have a really strong performance in Florida, has enough money to keep, to compete in what’s basically a de facto national primary day in the beginning of March.

HH: Now Steve Schmidt, your honest opinion on one very difficult question. Do you think Mitt Romney can beat Barack Obama in the fall?

SS: I do think that Mitt Romney could beat Barack Obama. And more importantly than my opinion, if you look at all of the polling out there, you know, Mitt Romney is either slightly ahead, even, or slightly behind Barack Obama on any given day in every respectable public opinion survey that’s out there. In Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, it’s 12-13 points behind Barack Obama. He’s 6 or 7 points behind what the Republican floor is in the race. I think that you know, for a Republican candidate, if it’s Mitt Romney, for example, against Barack Obama, I think basically Obama and Romney each start off with about 47% of the vote. And it’s a very narrow slice of the electorate that they’ll be appealing to. And if you look at Newt Gingrich, there’s just a lot of the electorate, and I’m not saying this can’t change, but it’s very, very difficult to change opinion when you’re 100% known, and 60% of the country has an unfavorable opinion of you. And it’s been like that for 20 years.

HH: I’m not talking possibilities of 1% or so, but in your heart, do you think Newt Gingrich can beat Barack Obama?

SS: I think it’s a very, very difficult proposition. I think that the Obama campaign us just ebullient at the prospects of running against Newt Gingrich.

HH: Now in terms of the campaign’s debate dependency, I think Newt Gingrich won because he took John King’s head off, and that he involved in that answer the anger that a lot of Republicans feel towards Beltway-Manhattan media elites, and the manipulation of everything. A) Do you agree with that assessment? And B) If you do agree that there’s this anger towards the media, how ought Romney and Santorum to tap into it? They can’t be Newt. Newt’s Newt.

SS: Newt is Newt, and Romney runs the risk if he tries to emulate Newt in this degree of looking inauthentic, you know, not looking authentic, you know, that it’s an inauthentic attack. And you know, frankly, that’s a deadly combination for Governor Romney. Look, the Republican base is angry, and if there’s one thing that our voters in the Republican Party can’t stand is the condescension that’s constantly leveled at them by the news media. And they look at the race, and you know, I don’t talk about this very often, Hugh, because you know, frankly, it’s self-serving on my part to do so. But the media coverage, and even if you talk off the record with the reporters who covered the race in 2008, the 2008 coverage in the campaign wasn’t on the level at any level, and Republican voters know it, and they understand it, and they’re sick of it. And a great example of this is the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party folks marched on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The Mall was left cleaner than when they arrived. If you go through Washington, D.C., through McPherson Square, where the Occupy protesters are holed up, it’s a rat-infested square where they’ve destroyed a public park. That’s…the Park Service just rejuvenated with a million dollars. So people are just irate about it, and you just had millions of Republicans around the country stand up and cheer. And I will say, as someone who’s worked closely with John King over the years, he is one of the fairest reporters that’s out there. He’s a true pro. He’s an old school reporter. And it’s too bad that he was the guy that became the poster child, because in fact, if the press all conducted themselves like John King, we probably wouldn’t have the problems that we have with the Republican base and the press.

HH: How do they get a debate, though, or three debates – ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN, not asking Fast & Furious, not talking about Iran, not bringing up the stimulus, the recess appointments? There’s a long list, Steve Schmidt, of major issues of deep concern to the Republican electorate that simply don’t get brought up.

SS: Yeah, my theory on this is that four years from now, you will see a very different debate structure for the Republican primary audiences where if not all the debates, a very sizable number of the debates will be moderated by people who have an ability to focus on issues that Republican voters care about.

HH: Do you expect President Obama will agree to more than one or two debates? Nixon said none, Bill Clinton said two. This President’s got very little to gain from debating any of our nominees.

SS: You know, the Presidential Debate Commission really has a monopoly on this. And you know, there’s the pipe dream of all presidential candidates and campaigns, and I’ve been in the middle of the last two with President Bush and with Senator McCain, and we have in these campaigns these elaborate strategies to try to get around the Presidential Debate Commission. But at the end of the day, it’s very difficult to do. And you know, what I suspect is that we’ll wind up having the three presidential debates and the vice presidential debate again, and they’re just going to be momentous, with a lot of people watching them.

HH: Last question, Steve. There’s a second campaign going on in Florida. It’s a Spanish language campaign. How vital is that to the result that we’re going to see a week from tomorrow night? We’ve got about 45 seconds.

SS: It’s very vital. It’s a hugely important constituency in the Republican Party, the Cuban-American constituency. But you also have increasingly a Central and South American-Hispanic constituency in Florida. You also look, I think, and you’ll see Newt Gingrich give a space speech this week. The space community, the engineers through the I-4 corridor, many of whom are unemployed because of the, really, collapse of the U.S. space program, another vital constituency in Florida this week as well.

HH: Interesting. Steven Schmidt, thank you, from Edelman up in California, hope we can catch up with you again early and often in 2012, someone who actually knows what he’s talking about when he talks about how to run a campaign.

End of interview.

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