WHEN ROMNEY decided he was serious about running for governor, he turned to a close circle of friends and advisers to help plan his campaign. Charles Manning — a veteran of the 1994 Senate campaign, who had remained in close touch with the candidate — was among the first to step forward. Romney and Manning came up with a list of the country’s leading Republican political consultants, and Michael Murphy’s name topped the list for media consultant. They liked Murphy’s experience with McCain and Whitman, whom he’d helped boost to victory in another important Northeastern state. Beyond that, Romney felt comfortable with the fact that Murphy was from Michigan, his own home state. Murphy was already busy working on the re-election campaign of Florida governor Jeb Bush, but he was willing to come north for Romney.
Murphy made his presence felt in the campaign almost immediately. Together with Manning and Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, he crashed the April 1 Democratic debate at the John F. Kennedy Library. There, he was spotted clapping heartily after former secretary of labor Robert Reich made an impassioned plea for liberalism in the Democratic Party. Afterward, Murphy rushed to the TV cameras and stole some of the spotlight. "Mitt Romney won the debate," he told reporters.
So far, Republican operatives are praising Murphy’s addition to the Romney team. "Everyone has great respect for Michael," says Ron Kaufman, a Republican National Committee member from Massachusetts, adding, "Right now, to win this race, everything needs to go well."
Still, there is room for caution. Though Murphy wins praise for much of his work with McCain and Whitman — a record that attracted Romney — he does not get high marks for his involvement in another high-profile Northeastern political contest: Hillary Rodham Clinton’s race against New York representative Rick Lazio for a US Senate seat in 2000, which the Romney campaign would also have done well to consider.
When Lazio entered the race, Murphy signed on as chief strategist. Clinton was a highly polarizing figure against whom a moderate Republican could have made headway. But, almost immediately, tension developed between Murphy and Lazio. At first, Murphy attempted to resign, but Lazio’s aides coaxed him back. In addition, New York’s hack-ridden Republican Party viewed Murphy with suspicion, thanks to the role he’d played in getting McCain on the New York presidential-primary ballot — against the wishes of Governor George Pataki, a Bush supporter. Party stalwarts hounded Lazio to spend more time paying homage to them, and Murphy wanted him to focus on statewide television advertising. He also wanted to find a way to limit Clinton’s ability to raise then-unlimited soft money.
Murphy helped devise a strategy wherein Lazio pressured the Clinton campaign to agree not to use soft money. Getting Clinton to make that pledge prompted Lazio to march across the floor of the second Senate debate and into her space — one of the entire election season’s most memorable events. That wasn’t a Murphy suggestion. But the focus on soft money was. When the Republican National Committee ran two ads on behalf of Lazio late in the campaign, the Clinton campaign immediately pounced, claiming Lazio had violated their agreement. The Lazio campaign offered several defenses, but it was a political disaster. The candidate ended up spending too much time on the defensive when his campaign should have been selling him to voters.
"You don’t do anything that can even create the possibility that you’re flip-flopping," recalls one former Lazio aide, who’s still smarting over the incident. This Republican’s advice about relying on Murphy? "There needs to be an understanding from the beginning on what the strategy is and someone needs to ask, ‘Is that flawed? Is that good?’ "
In retrospect, it’s difficult to attribute blame for outcome of the Lazio campaign. As John F. Kennedy once said, "Success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan." Lazio, to be sure, had a number of problems as a candidate. He lacked focus and often appeared slow on the uptake. Adds RNC member Kaufman, "I don’t think anybody thinks Lazio lost because of his consultants." That said, it’s fair to point out that the Romney team paid little attention to the Lazio debacle when it selected Murphy, focusing instead on the consultant’s work with McCain and Whitman.
While the Romney campaign should avoid the Lazio team’s mistakes, it should also avoid mirroring the McCain campaign. McCain’s presidential bid was a dynamic, breakthrough effort, dependent, in part, on the unique synergy between the creative Murphy and the trailblazing Arizona senator. The New Republic’s Franklin Foer wrote that "with McCain, all the clever gimmicks — the ‘straight talk,’ the town-hall meetings, the confetti-drenched rallies, the bus — flowed naturally from the Arizona senator’s heroic history, maverick reputation, and jokester persona. As a badly out-financed insurgent angling for attention, McCain had to break with the boring old campaign mold." That analysis of why Murphy was a good operative for McCain but less so for Lazio — that the latter’s persona couldn’t sustain Murphy’s fireworks — could apply equally well to Romney.
Thus, given the candidates’ differences, Romney’s camp is well aware that it can’t simply replay the McCain tape and hope for success in Massachusetts. Indeed, his greatest strength is his unique rŽsumŽ as a businessman and Olympics chief — which is impressive, but differs significantly from McCain’s background as a war hero. In personal style — so essential to McCain’s campaign — they differ markedly as well. But we can expect Romney to imitate McCain’s most successful tactic: positioning himself as an outsider railing against the Republican establishment.
Romney has gone part of the way toward running against the Republican Party already. First, he selected Healey as his running mate — even though the party’s grassroots were leaning toward Rappaport. (Rappaport blamed Murphy for convincing Romney, who had previously declared himself neutral in the lieutenant governor’s race, to sell him out.) In and of itself, Romney’s choice of Healey is of little import. After all, Romney is participating in an outsider tradition that's been around for over a decade: most successful statewide candidates do as little to curry favor with their party’s convention delegates as possible. The only downside to his move is that it gives the eventual Democratic nominee grounds to charge him with flip-flopping.
Romney also pitted himself against the Republican establishment when he criticized corruption in both parties during his convention speech. Again, this was a positive move unless, later in the campaign, the candidate finds he has to refrain from criticizing the Cellucci and Swift administrations to maintain Republican support.
More riskily, in his efforts to cast himself broadly as an outsider, Romney criticized time-honored state holidays. "State workers can get nearly six weeks a year in paid leave, and 13 paid holidays, including Bunker Hill Day and Evacuation Day," he said. Here, in his first major address to state voters, Romney took aim at a holiday (Evacuation Day) that just happens to fall on St. Patrick’s Day, and in so doing immediately risked a confrontation with Massachusetts’s Irish establishment. Though Romney’s jibe may win him support among suburban voters, he risked reigniting the Catholic opposition that caused him so much damage in 1994. Back then, the Catholic Joe Kennedy, campaigning for his uncle Ted, adroitly played the religion card against the Mormon Romney. It’s possible that more voters are offended by these holidays than would be troubled by his swipe at a local tradition. But it’s just as possible that Romney’s dig will place him on one side of a cultural divide where too few voters will wish to join him.
ON PAPER, there isn’t much in Romney’s strategy with which anyone can take issue. The trick will be its execution. Although well delivered, Romney’s speech on Saturday was somewhat passionless. And ultimately, matters of style could play into the Democrats’ hands. "This can’t come across like a stepping stone to greater glory," says Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "It was presidential in presentation, but it was written off a poll with little emotion or little connection to Massachusetts. There was nothing in that speech to get across the fact that he understands the problems of the people in this state."
That said, the overwhelming professionalism and polish of Romney’s performance on Saturday raised the bar considerably in the Massachusetts governor’s race. None of the Democratic contenders — Reich, Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, Senate president Tom Birmingham, former Democratic National Committee chair Steve Grossman, and former state senator Warren Tolman — has spoken or run ads at the level at which Romney is already competing. His stellar performance this weekend was a wake-up call to the Democrats, delivering the message that the Republican candidate is serious. If they want to win this year, they had better be as well.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com