Black and champagne-colored sport utility vehicles lined up outside Mitt Romney’s North End campaign headquarters one day last week and, for one of the few times this year, the candidate bounded into the building for what amounted to a homecoming.
Greeting the presumptive Republican presidential nominee was an eclectic cast of advisers who are as familiar to him as his own family, an extraordinarily tight-knit circle that includes about a dozen men and women who, for more than a decade, have formed the core of Team Romney.
Often secretive and always loyal, the advisers now face their ultimate test: transitioning from a relatively small circle that guided Romney through bruising primaries to a group that is expected to grow far larger in just a matter of weeks in order to reset the campaign for a general election fight against President Obama.
A number of those in the inner core have not previously worked in a presidential general election campaign, and new players with national experience recently have begun joining the campaign, potentially challenging the hierarchy with which Romney feels so comfortable. But some of Romney’s top advisers, speaking in interviews in which they discussed the candidate’s general election plans and decision-making process, said the core group will remain even as they welcome newcomers and new views.
“This is a group where there’s no showboating,’’ said Beth Myers, who managed the 2008 presidential campaign and is now a senior adviser. “That’s the Romney way, to bring people together who have a lot to offer and then be respectful of each other’s opinion. You may hear, ‘Um, no,’ but you’ll never hear, ‘Shut up.’ It’s a culture where everybody feels free to speak.’’
The expansion, and the potential change that comes with it, will be swift. Romney’s campaign is preparing a dramatic increase in manpower, with the current full-time staff of about 80 expected to reach 400 in the coming weeks, according to a Romney aide.
Romney, whose father George unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination in 1968, is heading into uncharted territory, going where no Romney has gone before. He becomes the de facto leader of the Republican Party, planning a convention in Tampa and attempting to unseat a Democratic president.
As a former business consultant, Romney is viewed as putting a much higher premium on the value of advisers than some other presidential candidates. Emulating what became known as the “Bain way,’’ named for the manner in which Romney’s Bain Capital partners debated investments, his campaign advisers are urged to play devil’s advocate as strategy is mulled. In the 2008 campaign, this approach backfired, with competing teams of advisers going in different directions. This time, the key difference is that the core team is smaller and even more loyal, and decisions are not second-guessed after they are reached, aides said.
Yet there are major questions about how Romney’s advisers will fare in running a general election campaign against President Obama, who retains much of the team that won the 2008 campaign and is better funded and organized. How equipped are they for the battles ahead? How smoothly will the new voices be integrated, and will divisions be forestalled as the heat of the campaign intensifies?
Romney’s longest-serving aides have been with him at least since he ran for governor in 2002. They include Myers, a former gubernatorial campaign volunteer who became Romney’s chief of staff on Beacon Hill, and Eric Fehrnstrom, who served as a Romney spokesman during his governorship and in 2008. Now a senior adviser, Fehrnstrom recently created controversy when he compared the transition to the general election to shaking an Etch-A-Sketch. Notwithstanding the damage from that remark, Fehrnstrom is so close to Romney that the candidate promptly stood by his adviser, further cementing the already strong bonds of two-way loyalty within the team.
“Eric and I can finish each other’s sentences,’’ Myers said. “We’ve been working together for 10 years.’’
Other longtime aides include Peter Flaherty, a former gubernatorial aide who is a senior adviser; Spencer Zwick, another former gubernatorial aide who is the campaign’s finance director; Matt Rhoades, the 2008 communications director and now campaign manager; and Bob White, a former Bain Capital partner who is one of Romney’s most trusted friends.
While these former gubernatorial aides have not played a major role in a general election presidential campaign, Romney has several other key advisers who have such experience, including longtime friend Ron Kaufman and political strategists Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer, all of whom worked with Romney on his failed 2008 White House bid.
Still, in recent weeks, and often with little fanfare, new faces have started showing up as advisers. The campaign announced that Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman who served as a strategist for President George W. Bush, would become a senior adviser. The Romney campaign declined to make Gillespie available for an interview, and he said via e-mail that he could not talk without such authorization. Another longtime GOP operative, Charles Black, a former strategist for Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, also became a Romney adviser earlier this year. Black could not be reached for comment.
Apart from his core group of advisers and his paid campaign staff, Romney has a wide range of people he consults on various topics.
Many were active in George W. Bush’s administration, and most were also part of Romney’s team in 2008. The advisers tend to be conservative on social and economic matters and hawkish on foreign policy and defense. The campaign has downplayed the conventional wisdom that the candidate will move to the middle now that Romney is the presumptive nominee, and there has been no visible effort to bring high-profile moderates on board.
While Romney tweaks Harvard University - he said recently that Obama is out of touch, maybe because he spent too many years at Harvard - many of his advisers hold graduate degrees from the Ivy League school, and Romney himself is a Harvard Law and Business School graduate. And while he has criticized the culture of Washington, many of his advisers are current or former lobbyists.
Some of those tapped as advisers have taken positions out of sync with Romney on key issues, something not uncommon for Romney, who professes to want a range of debate within his team.
One of his economic advisers, Harvard professor Gregory Mankiw, has suggested a gas tax of more than $2 per gallon - even as Romney blames Obama for gas prices that he thinks are already too high. One of his foreign policy advisers, Mitchell Reiss, has suggested negotiating with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan - an approach Romney opposes. Reiss said via e-mail he could only talk with the campaign’s authorization, which was not provided.
Several of his health care advisers have criticized Romney’s insurance law in Massachusetts.
Romney has assembled 22 special advisers on foreign policy and working groups organized into regions such as Asia-Pacific, Latin America, and Afghanistan or into issues such as human rights, international assistance, or counterterrorism. That compares with four advisers on the economy, suggesting that foreign policy remains an area where he needs more advice. Romney recently said, for example, that Russia was the “No. 1 geopolitical foe’’ of the United States, a comment critics seized upon as outdated, reflecting a Cold War mindset.
Perhaps no one is more important to Romney as a source of advice and support than his wife, Ann. She often provides a sounding board, and he credits her with pushing him into the race in the first place. Romney’s oldest son, Tagg, is also a frequent presence on the campaign trail and gives advice to his father - just as Romney once went along on some of his father’s campaigns.
When Romney made his visit to campaign headquarters last Thursday, most of his close advisers were there, and the mood was buoyant. It came on a day when the campaign was trying to capitalize on a comment that Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen had made about Ann Romney, a stay-at-home mom, not working a day in her life. After the meeting in Boston, some gathered around a television to watch Ann Romney on Fox News. Everyone knew that a tough road lay ahead in the general election. But this was, in the lexicon of the campaign, a Mitt moment - one to savor.
“It was just fun to see him,’’ Myers said. “He was obviously feeling good. He was really proud of Ann today. We watched her . . . on Fox. I’ve never seen him look so proud as he was of Ann.’’