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Team Schwarzenegger gets overhaul with a White House feel

Last spring, after the governor all but declared war on union leaders and
other Democratic interests, Republicans sat and watched as the unions led an
offensive that helped drag down the governor’s poll ratings, and doom his
special election agenda.

Under the watch of new campaign manager Steve Schmidt and communications
director Katie Levinson, both fresh off the plane from the Bush White House,
Team Schwarzenegger is determined not to make the same mistake again.

“For California Republicans who were frustrated last year by the lack of an
aggressive response out of the governor’s operation, they’ll be very
pleasantly surprised when they see this new team in action,” says Dan
Schnur, a former communications director for Gov. Pete Wilson.

The task of reelecting the governor may prove to be a difficult one. A new
poll from the Public Policy Institute of California shows the governor has
lost some of his post-State of the State bounce in the polls. According to
the latest survey, only 40 percent of likely voters have a favorable opinion
of the governor, down from 45 percent in January.

Meanwhile, the new team is settling in to their new campaign digs, located
several blocks from the Capitol in the drab, eight-story Comerica Bank
building on Capitol Mall. Inside, construction workers are assembling
cubicles. Phones ring at random, though there are no working phone numbers
in the office as of yet.

But within weeks, this will be the Schwarzenegger command center. This will
be the communications hub, and the war room, where Schwarzenegger will
respond to attacks from Phil Angelides and Steve Westly as the campaign for
governor ramps up.

Schmidt and Levinson head up a new cast of characters that will be charged
with reelecting Gov. Schwarzenegger. They have enlisted the help of Matt
McDonald, who ran the rapid response operation for Bush/Cheney 2004 and the
White House to assist in the effort. Julie Soderlund, a deputy in the
governor’s press office, will be the campaign press secretary.

And as Republicans prepare to gather in San Jose, the new campaign team will
get some attention, and probably some unsolicited advice, at the convention
from activists who have been frustrated at the direction of the party over
the last year.

“I think this particular convention is important for the governor’s team,”
says Karen Hanretty, former communications director for the California
Republican Party. “At the last one, there was a lot of frustration among
convention goers who were openly questioning why the governor and his
campaign weren’t more aggressive in responding to his attacks by the unions.
This offers the new team an opportunity to show the loyal foot soldiers that
they have a plan and they intend to be aggressive about executing that
plan.”

Schnur said the rapid response piece was part of what was missing from the
governor’s special election effort. But he says Levinson and McDonald will
not only help the governor’s reelection effort, but his work could have
lasting impact on the California Republican Party. “By the time he’s done
here, Matt McDonald will have bred an entire generation of young Republican
operatives who will know that there is no worse sin in a campaign than
leaving an attack unanswered,” says Schnur.

Democrats seem unimpressed, or at least unfazed, with the new team “It’s
more about what the response is, not about how fast he can get it out,” says
Democratic consultant Andrew Acosta, whose firm is doing some work for
Westly’s campaign. “The governor has been on a road tour, and PPIC shows his
numbers are going down. I don’t care if you hire Machiavelli or Karl Rove,
at the end of the day, it’s Schwarzenegger’s name on the ballot.”

But at the very least, Schwarzenegger’s new team should help ease the
concerns of many Republican activists, who have criticized the governor for
placing Democrats in top positions, and blasted his former campaign team for
botching the special election.

Schwarzenegger’s new campaign team is set to descend on San Jose with some
bona fide Republican credentials.

Rounding out the new campaign team are Matt David, who will serve as deputy
communications director, Reed Galen, who will serve as deputy campaign
manager under Schmidt, along with Schmidt’s assistant, Jon Berrier. Sarah
Simmons, a former aide to Karl Rove, will also be based out of the
Sacramento office, serving as strategist Matthew Dowd’s liaison in
California.

The campaign team will work in tandem with the Republican Party operation.
Because of state campaign finance laws, much of the money for the campaign
will be raised through the party. Mike Vallente will head up the party’s
political operation, which will include a Victory 2006 portion to help
coordinate between the gubernatorial race and down-ticket races. Rob
Stutzman, the governor’s former communications director, is on contract with
the party, and will also help in the coordinated campaign effort.

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