By Nia-Malika Henderson
The Washington Post
Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s chief campaign strategist, has emerged as the main target of finger-pointing within the presidential candidate’s brain trust amid criticism of the campaign’s direction from many Republicans and a slip in swing-state polls.
Stevens, who has been second only to Romney in shaping the candidate’s message, has been blamed for missteps in the campaign and at the Republican National Convention, including the last-minute rewriting of Romney’s acceptance speech, which did not mention Afghanistan.
Boasting an unconventional resume that includes writing for television, biking 450 miles along the Pyrenees and skiing at the North Pole, Stevens is Romney’s speechwriter and ad man, a jack-of-all trades who makes up one half of a political odd couple.
Stevens is a red hot, eccentric Southerner.
Romney is buttoned-down New England cool.
With a connection dating to 2008, when Stevens left the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and joined Romney’s team, the relationship between Romney and his top strategist is not likely to change, even as some Republicans — including some in the Romney camp — are calling for an overhaul. On Monday morning, campaign aides were focused on retooling Romney’s message rather than on a Politico article that detailed Stevens’s role in the stumbles at the convention, which did not give Romney a significant bounce and ceded the candidate’s prime-time spotlight to Clint Eastwood.
A campaign aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, said that Romney’s messaging has frustrated many advisers who consider it overly tactical. Some insiders view the candidate’s criticism last week of President Barack Obama’s Libya policy as one such misstep. There also is an internal debate, the aide said, between those who want to emphasize foreign policy as a winnable argument and those who say it should be used only as a strike against Obama.
Stevens, the aide said, is in the latter category.
Stevens got his start in presidential politics in 1995, when he worked on former senator Bob Dole’s failed White House bid. He also worked on George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, and the experience led to “The Big Enchilada,” one of four books that Stevens has written.
Mostly known as an image guy, Stevens was one of the handful of McCain aides who left that campaign in July 2007 amid squabbling over how to revive McCain’s flagging and cash-strapped operation.
The 58-year-old Mississippi native has written three travel books detailing his adventures driving across Africa, eating his way across Europe and journeying across China.
“Stuart prides himself on being not captive to any particular interest,” Rachel Klayman, his editor, said in a lengthy profile published in the New Republic.
As Romney’s chief strategist, Stevens faces a crucial test in the next 50 days: He must turn around a campaign that many Republicans view as having blown opportunities to sell the candidate as a credible alternative to Obama.
Some insiders suggest that Stevens has received too much attention during the campaign, reflecting poorly on Romney.
“All campaigns, every last one of them, reflect the personality, characteristics and principles of the candidate, not the consultants or managers or staff or anybody else, and that’s the bottom line,” said John Weaver, who worked briefly with Stevens on the McCain campaign. “This is about electing somebody to manage the White House, and you look at the management of a campaign as reflective of someone’s ability to do so.” Meantime, the official campaign line is that everything is fine.
“I’ve got a terrific campaign,” Romney said Monday, according to NBC News, adding that there will be no changes to his staff in the wake of the Politico report. “My senior campaign people work extraordinarily well together.” Added Romney, “These process stories really take away from what’s really of concern” in the campaign.
In the coming days, Romney is expected to roll out more specific policy details, a shift that Republicans have been calling for. Beyond that, the next big moment will come on Oct. 3, when he will face Obama in the first debate. Stevens has been a key adviser in Romney’s debate prep and some consider that exchange a potential game changer.
“We are 50 days out and the same people who are goats today will be heroes in 51 days if Romney wins,” Weaver said. “That’s just the nature of campaigns.”