But the morning after Romney’s big win in the Illinois primary, Fehrnstrom blunted the Republican presidential front-runner’s momentum by saying on CNN that Romney would “hit a reset button” in the general election.
“It’s almost like an Etch a Sketch,” Fehrnstrom said Wednesday. “You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.”
Romney’s political opponents pounced. Etch a Sketch went viral. Suddenly the image of a children’s toy erasing drawings with a simple shake reignited concerns about the certainty of Romney’s conservatism.
The message didn’t help Romney, nor did the messenger. Although Fehrnstrom is one of Romney’s longest-serving aides, he, like his boss, has no roots in the conservative movement. Fehrnstrom started out as a reporter covering alderman meetings in Boston and lives in liberal Brookline, Mass. His work as a GOP operative has been confined to New England — a region, as he often notes, that’s “pretty rocky terrain for Republicans.”
To some influential conservatives, Fehrnstrom is an enigma. It’s not that conservatives don’t trust him. It’s that some don’t even know him.
“I’ve never heard of him. I’ve been going to conservative meetings since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and I’ve never seen him anywhere,” said Craig Shirley, an adviser to conservative organizations who has worked for Newt Gingrich, one of Romney’s opponents.
Despite the gaffe, it appears unlikely that Fehrnstrom will be demoted or will lose his job. He is one of Romney’s most trusted advisers — if he worked for President Obama, he would be a cross between David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs — and Romney is fiercely protective of his loyalists.
“Eric is the first guy to jump out there and defend Mitt,” said Romney’s communications director, Gail Gitcho. She added that Fehrnstrom, who runs senior staff briefing calls with Romney every morning, provides “very careful counsel.”
Inside Romney’s Boston headquarters, Fehrnstrom is regarded for his determination and steadiness — “he just moves through the water,” senior adviser Beth Myers said — as well as his encyclopedic memory about all things Romney.
This week, when Axelrod told CBS News that he admires the Romney campaign because it has been “doggedly tenacious,” Romney aides believed he was referring to Fehrnstrom.
“He’s also got a great intuition for seeing around the corners,” Myers said. “He has a good understanding of human nature and good intuition. And he’s also just whip-smart, which people may not know about him because he’s not braggy.”
Fehrnstrom, 50, entered politics in 1994 when Joe Malone, then the state treasurer, plucked him from the Boston Herald, where he had been covering the State House, to be his communications director.