Romney’s Inner Circle Builds a Leaner, Meaner Campaign

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John Gurzinski / AFP / Getty Images

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney confronts his Republican presidential rivals at the CNN and The Western Republican Leadership Conference debate on Oct. 18, 2011 in Las Vegas.

When Mitt Romney jousted with Rick Perry at last week’s Republican debate, the skirmish was striking not just for its apparent acrimony, but because it was one of the few moments during his second campaign for President that Romney seemed frazzled. As his rivals’ fortunes rise and fall, the former Massachusetts governor has skated unscathed through the debates, enunciating a message of economic renewal grounded in his own business background. The shape-shifting Romney of four years ago has given way to a sharper candidate, seasoned by his loss and, according to both aides and observers, more comfortable in his own skin. And while much of the credit goes to Romney, his steady performance is also the product of a veteran campaign staff.

Like the candidate, the Romney campaign has improved since its first foray into presidential politics. Four years ago, Romney’s team was bloated and riven by infighting. This time around it is streamlined and sleeker. At some 70 paid employees, the campaign is roughly 40% of the size it was at this time in the last cycle. And yet, the core advisers who comprise Romney’s brain trust remain largely the same, providing continuity that his rivals’ camps lack. “Romney’s campaign has shown a lot of maturity, stability and discipline,” says Republican strategist Mark McKinnon.

The man at the helm of this operation is campaign manager Matt Rhoades, a veteran of George W. Bush’s research shop and the Republican National Committee, who served as Romney’s communications director in 2008. Well-regarded in Republican circles, Rhodes, 36, is a low-profile operator who runs the campaign’s day-to-day operations. “He is very talented and doesn’t care about credit,” says former RNC chairman and Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman. Rhoades is also fabled for his close ties to Matt Drudge, whose eponymous website has – at least in the eyes of many rivals – been gentler on Romney as a result.

Also among Romney’s inner circle are a triumvirate of Boston-based politicos who have been in the trenches with Romney for years. One is Beth Myers, who served as chief of staff during Romney’s statehouse tenure and ran his presidential bid four years ago. Peter Flaherty, a former district attorney, spearheaded Romney’s outreach to religious conservatives in the 2008 cycle. Perhaps the most visible of the three is senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, a former spokesman and occasionally acid-tongued custodian of Romney’s image. “He has very good political instincts,” Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, an adviser to Romney in 2008, says of Fehrnstrom. In 2010, the trio helped steer Scott Brown’s successful campaign for the Senate seat vacated by the late Ted Kennedy.

Another Romney confidante, Bob White, has a relationship with the candidate that extends to their days at Bain. (A picture that surfaced recently of the pair posing with dollars dripping from their bespoke suits – an outtake from a photo-shoot for a Bain Capital brochure – surely gave the Boston brain trust heartburn.) White, whom the candidate has often described as his “wing man,” also worked on Romney’s ill-fated bid to snatch Kennedy’s Senate seat in the 1990s, his turnaround effort on the Salt Lake City Olympics and on Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Romney also relies on Stuart Stevens, his top strategist, and Stevens’ longtime partner Russ Schriefer. Veterans of the sharp-edged Bush campaign, the pair worked briefly for John McCain in 2008 before leaping to Romney. They now shoulder responsibility for shaping Romney’s strategy and message, and bring complementing personalities to the job, according to Republicans who have worked on campaigns with the pair in the past. “[They are] night and day,” McKinnon says. “Stuart is crazy, Russ is sane. Stuart is chaos, Russ is organized.” Schriefer, the architect of the wind-surfing spot that helped plant doubts about John Kerry’s principles in 2004, and Stevens, who has written five books and dabbled in television screenwriting, have stressed an economy-focused messaged that plays to Romney’s strengths. “They know when to blitz and when to go into prevent defense,” says McKinnon. “And most important, they know the game is won in the fourth quarter.”

But in recent weeks Romney’s staff has been tantalized by the prospect of sewing up the nomination before the game enters the second half.  Zeroing in on the only competitor with the chance to become a fundraising juggernaut, they have bludgeoned Perry repeatedly, launching a website that brands Perry a “career politician” and hammers him for being soft on immigration and out of step on Social Security. They also released a brutal web video that stitches together Perry’s shakiest debate moments, an apparent attempt to underscore skepticism among the Republican establishment about Perry’s intellect.

Applying the “career politician” tag to Perry makes for a nice juxtaposition with Romney,  the self-heralded “business guy,” in this anti-Washington climate. But it’s not entirely fair. Perry’s tenure in government is so much longer than Romney’s in part because he’s been much better at winning elections. And not all pundits agree with the decision to go negative on Perry now, when he is plummeting in polls, since doing so resurrects the narrative that the Texan is Romney’s likeliest foil down the line. “It is precisely because Mr. Perry is the more threatening candidate that Mr. Romney might want to think twice about helping to position Mr. Perry as the “anti-Romney” choice — a valuable piece of real estate,” wrote the New York Times‘ Nate Silver.

Still, there’s no question Romney’s run has so far been marred by few missteps. Both insiders and outside observers say the campaign has benefited from experience forged in the crucible of the ’08 effort. “It is not unusual as you go around the track your second time to build a leaner and more streamlined and efficient operation,” says Castellanos. “I think they have built a better campaign this time around than last.”

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