BOSTON — Romney 2012 campaign manager Matt Rhoades keeps such a low profile that he once nearly made his career disappear.
“He was so quiet,” said Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), Rhoades’s friend and mentor, who nearly let him go from the Republican National Committee during a 1999 staff overhaul despite sensing his talent. “We just didn’t know whether he wanted to stay, whether he wanted to be part of the team with us. He didn’t talk.”
Rhoades, 36, now comes through loud and clear whenever Mitt Romney speaks about jobs, the economy and Barack Obama’s mismanagement of the presidency. Which is to say most every time Romney opens his mouth.
In a Republican primary packed with highly flammable candidates who have taken turns at self-immolation, Rhoades is the organizing force behind Romney’s safe and smooth campaign. An expert at manipulating the news cycle with a coveted connection to the elusive media power broker Matt Drudge, Rhoades is particularly well suited to run a campaign that Romney himself characterized this weekend as employing a “confidentiality of strategy.”
“When you see the intense focus and discipline of the Romney campaign,” Griffin said, “you are seeing in large part Matt Rhoades.”
And that is about all you will see of him. Rhoades, who almost never travels with the candidate, came of political age in the dark recesses of the opposition research universe and, either by career coincidence or design, has rarely appeared in the media. One exception: A 20-something blowup when he shattered a computer screen with his fist.
Years operating off the radar have given Rhoades a reputation as one of the Republican Party’s most shadowy tacticians.
For Rhoades, this mystique is politically useful, and he's not about to dispel it.
“Now that he has a job that he could get famous in,” said Steve Schmidt, his old partner in the Bush-Cheney war room, “it’s the furthest thing from his mind.”
On a recent afternoon, the Romney campaign refused to let a reporter into its three-story headquarters in Boston’s North End. Rhoades was also off-limits. Senior Romney advisers agreed to talk — albeit bloodlessly — about Rhoades in an empty Italian restaurant across the street.
Rhoades is a good manager, a loyal worker and a smart guy, they said. He speaks daily with Romney, gives instructions on how to best manage the stripped-down budget and exudes quiet self-confidence.
The advisers refused to talk about Rhoades’s campaign strategy, but from the outside, it doesn’t seem so hard to divine.
The challenge for Romney, often described as an android by his critics, was never going to be discipline. His problem is his past, namely the positions he advocated as he ran unsuccessfully to the left of Ted Kennedy in a 1994 Senate race and then his record as a Republican governor of a liberal state.
Rhoades has done a remarkable job of retrofitting Romney’s inconvenient positions so that the candidate can maneuver in a conservative environment. The past is irrelevant, they’re saying, because the focus needs to be on the economy.
Incredibly, Romney’s Republican opponents are mostly playing along.
“This is a very message-driven race,” said Beth Myers, Romney’s closest aide, who served as campaign manager in 2008 and hired Rhoades. “And that is right in his wheelhouse.’’
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Rhoades has been setting the terms of the political discussion since he entered politics more than a decade ago.
He scored a job with the RNC immediately after graduating from Syracuse University in 1997. Working as a research analyst during the Florida recount in 2000, he made news by accusing one Democratic vote counter of ingesting a hanging chad. After George W. Bush prevailed, Rhoades joined the White House as an associate director for presidential personnel.
In 2003, with Bush’s reelection effort on the immediate horizon, Rhoades returned to the RNC as Griffin’s deputy in the research department, fostering unflattering stories about Democratic contenders. He then joined the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign as research director and ran its bruising rapid-response operation with communications director Steve Schmidt, who described Rhoades as unusually cool under fire.
With one notable exception a couple of months before the election.
“This job is about as close as you can come to being in a professional sports atmosphere,” Schmidt said. “And his job wasn’t very different from being the offensive coordinator up in the booth. And he saw something that he didn’t like.”
The displeasing information appeared on Rhoades’s computer, and he took his anger out on the messenger, punching the screen so hard that it shattered. A campaign official told Rhoades he would have to pay for it. Schmidt said he told the “bureaucrat” that “he is not paying for anything, and the real question is what did that computer screen do to Matt.”
Colleagues later credited Rhoades with significantly damaging Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by characterizing him as a Francophile flip-flopper. (Rhoades apparently finds Romney’s own fluency in French less bothersome.)
Rhoades returned to the RNC after Bush’s reelection. It was then that he acquired a relationship that has contributed to his lore in Republican circles.
Griffin, who was leaving the RNC, invited Rhoades to a steak dinner in Miami with Drudge. At that dinner, Griffin passed the torch to Rhoades as Drudge’s chief connection in the GOP. Exactly how that relationship works is a mystery, but Rhoades’s own stock rose as a result and insiders considered it a coup when Romney hired him as communications director for his last campaign.
Rhoades moved to Boston in January 2007 and expressed so much confidence in his relationship with Drudge that he laughed at rival Republicans who declared their intentions to court the page-view potentate. In this election, Romney again appears to be reaping the benefits of the connection. “Mitt Romney leads The Drudge Primary,” read a Politico article in June that documented positive coverage for Romney on the site.
“He had the right relationships from his research experience,” Myers acknowledged.
Rhoades’s colleagues say that the Drudge connection is overblown, and that he is just better attuned to the fracturing of political media and how to make it work to his candidate’s advantage.
“Anybody running a Web site, the reason they look to Matt is that he has a lot of information,” Madden said. “And knows how to use it.”
Some reporters go out of their way to curry favor. “ENGAGED,” read an August posting in Politico’s Playbook announcing Rhoades’s engagement to Jamie Loftus, a McCain campaign veteran. It added that he “popped the question Saturday night on the beach in Siasconset, on Nantucket.”
It’s been quite a primary season for Rhoades: Romney has waltzed through mostly untouched. The Obama campaign, all but certain that Romney will be their opponent in the general election, has begun highlighting Romney’s past inconsistencies and questioning his “core.”
From behind the scenes, Rhoades has released memos attacking Obama and advised his staffers to conserve their energy for the race to come.
At a recent meeting, Rhoades counseled his staff members that they needed to get some sleep, eat well and take care of themselves, according to longtime Romney confidant Bob White.
“A campaign is grueling,” Rhoades said, according to White. “ ‘And it is going into a stage where it could be more grueling.”