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Clarification to This Article
This article describes consultant Mike Murphy as a participant in planning meetings for Mitt Romney's Republican presidential campaign. Murphy took part in early meetings but left Romney's team at the end of 2005.

Romney Strategy in Peril With Huckabee's Ascent

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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 24, 2007

DES MOINES -- A year ago, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney gathered his campaign team for the first time at his suburban Boston home. There were PowerPoint presentations, and Ann Romney made sandwiches. "It was like the first day of school," said one senior-level participant.

It was then that Romney put in motion his strategy to become president: Win Iowa and New Hampshire by wooing fiscal and social conservatives, and use that momentum to overwhelm the competition in the primaries that followed. But with less than two weeks before Iowans vote, that strategy is in danger of unraveling because former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has seized the conservative mantle and has emerged as the front-runner. His sudden rise in the past month -- sparked by passionate support from the same Christian conservatives Romney has been unable to win over -- has raised questions about Romney's strategy.

"In Iowa, someone was always going to challenge Romney as a conservative alternative," said GOP consultant Scott Reed, who managed Robert J. Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. "Huckabee has caught the eyes of social conservatives in Iowa, and the issue is if they have grown enough in numbers to deliver a win."

Romney's advisers bristle at the notion that he could have run his campaign differently. They are particularly sensitive to charges that the former governor changed his positions on abortion, immigration and gay rights to be more in tune with Republican voters, particularly in Iowa. They say his conservative credentials are genuine.

And, they say, they always knew Romney would face a challenge like this, though at the December 2006 meeting, the talk was about former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani -- not Huckabee.

"We were sitting around with a PowerPoint," a senior adviser, one of a half-dozen who were at the December gathering, said on the condition of anonymity. "We weren't sitting around with a crystal ball."

A year later, Romney's top aides spend their time in meetings working to beat back Huckabee's challenge.

"Are there moments of quiet and sometimes not-so-quiet desperation? Of course," another longtime adviser said. "But . . . this is the strategy we have. We don't have the option of doing anything else."

Campaign spokesman Kevin Madden described the mood at the Boston headquarters as "determined" and "poised" these past few weeks, even as Romney's lead in Iowa has evaporated. He said staff members are following the lead of their candidate, who appeared calm as ever last week as he skipped across Iowa in a rented jet.

On the campaign trail, Romney tells how a friend, Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), told him in 2004 that he needed to start making preparations if he wanted to at least have the option of running for president.

Over the next year, Romney formed a PAC that he used to spread money to local candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. In 2006, he became chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a position that gave him an excuse to travel regularly to those states.

And he began meeting with his brain trust: Spencer Zwick, his finance chief; Robert F. White, a partner at Bain Financial, the firm he started; Beth Myers, who would become his campaign manager; New Hampshire consultant Tom Rath; and Iowa consultant Gentry Collins, who headed the PAC. Benjamin L. Ginsberg was the PAC's lawyer and also a confidant. Ron Kaufman, a top aide to President George H.W. Bush, was present, as were Mike Murphy, a consultant who ran Romney's campaign for governor, and Dave Kochel, an Iowa strategist.


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