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GOP adviser juggles role with Brown, Romney

File/The Boston Globe

Eric Fehrnstrom joined Mitt Romney’s gubernatorial campaign in 2002 and became a member of his inner circle.

Senator Scott Brown stood on the US Senate floor on Wednesday, breaking rank with some Republican colleagues as he called for extension of a national domestic violence program, a proposal championed by Democrats.

It was a moment that his chief media strategist, Eric Fehrnstrom, could not have scripted better as he carefully crafts an image of the candidate as a fierce defender of the ideological middle.

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But on the same day, Fehrnstrom, who is also serving as a top adviser to presidential candidate Mitt Romney, was at the center of a national political storm, one he created that morning on CNN when he suggested that Romney could “hit the reset button’’ and wipe away his conservative positions once he clinches the GOP nomination, much like an “Etch A Sketch’’ toy. His comment undercut the campaign’s attempts to assure GOP voters that Romney is a true conservative.

The contrasting incidents highlight what many in the Massachusetts political world have wondered for some time: how does Fehrnstrom pivot from a national campaign that is focused on making his candidate attractive to the hard-right Republicans who dominate GOP presidential primaries, to a Massachusetts Senate race where his GOP incumbent scrambles to hold on to the middle ground, away from socially conservative positions that play so poorly in state elections?

As the fury continued Thursday (and the makers of Etch A Sketch reported a jump in sales), Fehrnstrom, who has laid low since Wednesday’s CNN appearance, brushed aside any suggestion that his roles in the two campaigns conflict. In a brief e-mail response to a query from the Globe, he noted that consultants frequently advise candidates with widely varying positions, a reality that he said the public recognizes.

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“People don’t care about the hired help,’’ Fehrnstrom said in the e-mail. “I help Republicans running for office. Each one is their own person, with their own positions.’’

But the national uproar was lapping at Brown’s door Thursday. The state Democratic Party jumped on the issue, presenting Etch A Sketch toys to Romney’s Boston headquarters and trying to use Fehrnstrom’s remarks to link Brown to the former Massachusetts governor.

“Eric Fehrnstrom’s ‘Etch A Sketch’ comments were particularly revealing, since Scott Brown’s entire strategy is based on trying to erase his support for Wall Street, tax breaks for millionaires, the Blunt amendment, and the Ryan budget, which would have ended Medicare as we know it,’’ party chairman John Walsh said in a statement to the Globe.

In some ways, Brown has allied himself closely with Romney, a position that could hurt him among a Massachusetts electorate, a near-majority of which views the former governor unfavorably, according to recent polls.

Brown told CNN host Piers Morgan this week that “there is no one I trust more on the economy than Mitt Romney.’’

But at the same time, Brown’s campaign strategy - as devised in part by Fehrnstrom - is to paint himself as more of an independent Republican, moderate enough to attract unenrolled voters but conservative enough not to alienate a key part of his political base in Massachusetts.

Walsh contends that the Fehrnstrom Etch A Sketch controversy chips away at that effort.

Brown’s campaign declined to comment on the dust-up Thursday. Aides to Elizabeth Warren, Brown’s chief Democratic challenger, also stayed clear.

Fehrnstrom, a Harwich native and former political reporter for the Boston Herald, left the news business in the early 1990s to work as a press spokesman for then-state Treasurer Joseph D. Malone. After a stint at a major Boston advertising agency, he joined Romney’s gubernatorial campaign in 2002, later becoming part of the governor’s State House inner circle and helping craft his presidential ambitions.

He is a fierce defender of his bosses. With Romney, he was often considered the heart of the praetorian guard around the governor, setting new and far more restrictive rules for access to a governor. His tough but wily dealings with the press often provoked both hard feelings and grudging respect.

Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic political consultant from Washington who has worked in scores of campaigns from presidential races to state and congressional contests around the country, said it is not unusual for a media consultant to handle campaigns with sharply diverse positions.

“There is nothing wrong when as a consultant you are advising someone in Massachusetts to run as a progress candidate and at same to time helping a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination to run ‘severely conservative,’ ’’ Devine said, referring to a phrase Romney used recently to describe his ideology to a national conservative group.

“The job of a political consultant is to help your clients to communicate their positions, connect with voters, and to understand the mechanics of campaigning,’’ Devine said. “It is not your job to impose your views on the candidates.’’

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.
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