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Published: Thursday, 7/3/2008

McCain promotes free trade, shakes up campaign staff again


CARTAGENA, Colombia - John McCain hailed the economic benefits of free trade to Colombians yesterday, raising the possibility of an eventual hemisphericwide agreement, and announced another shake-up in his presidential campaign staff.

The GOP presidential nominee-in-waiting toured Colombia's largest port by speedboat to review the country's U.S.-backed drug interdiction programs.

Mr. McCain wrapped up his visit yesterday and was headed to Mexico on a Latin American swing he insisted was not intended to be political.

Meanwhile, Mr. McCain ordered a shake-up of his campaign team, reducing the role of campaign manager Rick Davis and vesting political adviser Steve Schmidt with "full operational control" of his bid for the presidency.

Mr. Schmidt becomes the third political operative in a to take on the task of attempting to guide Mr. McCain to the White House.

A veteran of President Bush's political operation, he will be in charge of finding a more effective message in his race against Democrat Barack Obama.

Mr. Schmidt said Mr. McCain faces a difficult challenge, given the overall mood of the country, but said he is encouraged by the fact the two candidates remain in a relatively tight race.

"There are 125 days left until the American people will decide the next president," he said. "Senator McCain is the underdog in the race. We suspect he is behind nationally five to eight points but well within striking distance.

"I will help run an organization that exists for the purpose of delivering John McCain's message to the American people."

The abrupt shift in leadership was announced yesterday after weeks of complaints from Republicans outside the campaign and growing concerns within it about the lack of a clear message, the cumbersome decision-making process, the sloppy staging of events, and a schedule driving largely by fund-raising priorities rather than political necessity.

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