LOS ANGELES — When he has needed a quiet place to work, Mike Murphy has pedaled his electric commuter bike onto the Paramount Studios lot, flashed his ID and rode past cavernous stages such as No. 14, where filmmakers shot “Saturday Night Fever,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “Star Trek.”
Movie and TV stars paid no heed to the balding guy in horn-rimmed glasses and rumpled East Coast khakis as he made his way toward his office, closed the door and went to work trying to elect Jeb Bush president of the United States.
When Bush officially launches his campaign Monday, Murphy will have less time to spend at the Paramount hideaway he rented to write screenplays as he moves across town to run Right to Rise USA, the super PAC supporting his old friend.
For months, Murphy has been advising Bush, who so far has been unable to set himself apart from the crowded Republican field. Now Murphy, 53, will effectively be running a parallel political operation alongside Bush’s official campaign, overseeing TV and digital ads, short videos and other messaging to try to sell America on a third Bush.
What Murphy won’t be able to do is strategize with Bush, because federal election law prohibits super PACs from directly coordinating with campaigns.
That is no small thing for a GOP strategist known over the years as “a candidate whisperer” who has been close to Bush since 1997, when he worked on his campaign for Florida governor.
“I guess the calculation is that he has spent so much time with Bush there is no need for direct communication,” said Dan Schnur, who worked with Murphy on Sen. John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.
“Mike is a friend,” Bush said in an e-mail. “He is smart and funny. He is also one of the more creative guys I know.”
Bush recalled an ad Murphy created for his successful 1998 governor’s race: “We were doing a family bio ad, the family was having a picnic, along with our beloved dog Marvin. Marvin didn’t follow the script and jumped on the table and destroyed the neatly staged picnic.” Bush said Murphy “turned lemons into lemonade” and created “a real and funny” spot, “one of the better ads of its kind I’ve seen.”
Three thousand miles from the Bush campaign headquarters in Miami, Murphy is a red-meat Republican in a land of green-kale Hollywood liberals.
“I brought Mike to meet some of my friends,” said Dana Gould, a Los Angeles comedy writer who has worked on “The Simpsons.” “They said, ‘Mike Murphy, the Republican?’ He was like a Klingon aboard the Enterprise.”
Murphy has delighted in shaking things up, doing the unexpected, since he started creating political ads in his dorm room at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in the early 1980s.
A veteran of dozens of campaigns, Murphy has built a record of helping elect Republican governors in Democratic states, including Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, Mitt Romney in Massachusetts and Jeb Bush in Florida.
Along the way, Murphy has also worked for the Miami Heat and other sports teams, consulted on stand-up comedian Dennis Miller’s cable show, advised tech start-ups in Silicon Valley and booked himself passage on a nearly three-week container ship voyage from Seattle to Shanghai to force himself to finish an HBO script.
“He is the fiercest competitor I’ve ever gone up against and one of those I most admire,” said David Axelrod, who was chief campaign adviser for President Obama. “As technology grows, it offers all kinds of new possibilities, and Mike understands how technology can be used to spread the message.”
Axelrod and others said Murphy’s Silicon Valley connections — he is there nearly weekly — may be a boon to Bush efforts. Murphy has recruited tech talent that will analyze social media and big data to help target swing voters, flag issues as they arise and guide strategy.
Murphy is also seen as intolerant of ideas he disagrees with, “a genius who doesn’t do committee,” as a friend said. He has been divisive in some past campaigns, particularly because he gets so close to a candidate that other advisers feel out of the loop.
“Half the people thought he was fantastic, and the other half were jealous and spent every waking hour trying to figure out how to stab him in the back,” said John Weaver, who worked on the 2000 McCain presidential campaign with Murphy.
Weaver just signed on to advise Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s presidential bid, and in a conversation before that, Weaver also said of Murphy: “He has the rare ability to make candidates perform better, more authentically. He relaxes them, makes them laugh. Candidates are smitten with his intelligence and wit.”
Murphy won a lot of attention for a McCain upset win in New Hampshire against George W. Bush and by sitting in the back of the campaign’s “Straight Talk Express” bus with McCain, talking to reporters at length when access was tight with other candidates.
McCain, who has called Murphy “the funniest guy I know in politics,” said in an interview that Murphy “would always provide levity when we were riding around on the Straight Talk Express — and he had a good instinct for what the voters were thinking.”
Not long after George W. Bush won the 2000 race, Murphy returned to Florida to work on Jeb Bush’s 2002 reelection, amid talk in Washington that the Florida governor was keeping Murphy close in defiance of his brother and his White House team, who identified him with McCain.
When Murphy started advising Jeb Bush this year, some Republicans wondered if the Left Coaster has been too long away from a party base that has drifted right.
As an example, they note that Murphy signed a 2013 amicus brief in a U.S. Supreme Court case in support of gay marriage. He also has been vocal in urging the GOP to widen its tent and focus on attracting youths, women, Latinos and other minorities. As one donor said, though that may be critical in a general election, Murphy’s first task may be his hardest: connect Bush to conservative Republican primary voters.
Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t wait for Murphy to show up each morning when he was running for governor in 2003 so he could hear his latest ideas, said Rob Stutzman, who worked on that campaign.
In a much-remembered stunt, Murphy arranged for Schwarzenegger to drop a wrecking ball on an Oldsmobile Cutlass as he said, “Hasta la vista, car tax,” in an echo of his famous line from “Terminator 2.”
But then a bomb dropped on Schwarzenegger’s campaign: The Los Angeles Times reported that six women were accusing him of sexually harassing and groping them.
Calculating that if he didn’t address the issue head-on it would dominate the last campaign swing, Schwarzenegger shocked many in the state when he responded to the charges by saying: “I always say that where there is smoke there is fire. . . . So what I want to say to you is, yes, I have behaved badly sometimes.”
Many called it vintage Murphy — unexpected and bold.
How he will use his quick response skills from the super PAC, without direct contact with Bush, is something many will be watching.
After Schwarzenegger’s win, Murphy decided to do more in Hollywood.
He made a lot of money, too, working with corporate clients and helping elect candidates in Canada, Panama and the Republic of Georgia. He bought acres of the Nova Scotia coast and for a while owned his own plane.
His friend Rob Long, a sitcom writer who officiated at his wedding, said he never knew what Murphy would do next. “Hey, let’s go to Vancouver!” Murphy called and said one day, and they were on Murphy’s plane heading to comedy shows with Don Rickles and Dennis Miller.
HBO bought his script for a TV series about political hacks, though it has not been green-lighted. A film production company he set up snagged attention when Meg Whitman, the billionaire who now runs Hewlett-
Packard, invested $1 million in it before Murphy began advising her unsuccessful 2010 bid for California governor.
“He’s unexpected,” said Tucker Bounds, who worked with Murphy on the Whitman campaign and now has him advising his tech start-up. “He has a lot of visibility in a lot of different worlds.”
Murphy declined to comment about himself for this article, citing, with a chuckle, “overexposure.”
That’s a new public posture for a man who has been a regular on “Meet the Press,” the pundit on the campaign trail whom reporters could count on for a memorable quote, such as his tweet during a 2011 GOP debate: “Listening to Rick Perry putting a complicated policy sentence together is like watching a chimp playing with a locked suitcase.”
In what Murphy has called his “older, fatter, balder, wiser” period, he has kept a quieter profile, teaching politics at Harvard, working on a new HBO and film project, getting a charge out of being, as he has described it, “an endangered species: a Republican in Hollywood.”
In 2011 he married Tiffany Daniel, a movie producer, and they have a 1-year-old daughter.
Now returning to the glare of presidential politics, he’ll have little time for his movie lot hideaway that is decorated with old movie posters, including Robert Redford in the “The Candidate,” and black-and-white photos he shot of candidates on the trail.
Scott Kaufer, a writer and executive producer of “Boston Legal” and “Memphis Beat” who helped him get the office, said his writing projects with Murphy will have to wait.
On one recent day, outside Murphy’s beige office door near the Blue Sky Tank where director Cecil B. DeMille parted the seas in the “Ten Commandments,” Irving Press helped rip down a cable show set.
“That’s surprising,” said Press, 61, when told a Republican has been inside plotting a road to the White House. But come to think of it, he said, Martin Sheen made a fine president on the West Wing.
“It’s just America,” he said.