Article — From the November 2007 issue

Making Mitt Romney

How to fabricate a conservative

Mitt Romney keeps his South Carolina headquarters in a single-story building at one end of Gervais Street, which is Columbia’s version of Washington’s K Street, lined with the offices of local lobbyists, P.R. consultants, and other fixers and power brokers. The main room of Romney HQ is decorated with hand-painted red-and-blue signs, mementos from previous campaign events: mitt is my hero! mitt’s the man! mitt’s my pick! I visited on a steamy Monday night in late July, a time of year when few South Carolinians are interested in politics and fewer still want their evening interrupted by pitches for a presidential primary six months away. But eleven volunteers, mostly college students, were hunched in cubicles spread around the office, diligently placing cold calls to area residents. Boxes of pepperoni pizza from Domino’s (a company Romney backed when he ran the investment firm Bain Capital) were piled on a table against a wall.

“Senator Jim DeMint asked me to call you,” said one young woman, reading from a script into a cell phone. After running through a list of Romney’s accomplishments—rescuing the 2000 Olympics in Salt Lake City, “cutting a $3 billion deficit without raising taxes” while governor of Massachusetts—she asked if her listener would be willing to join DeMint, South Carolina’s junior senator, in supporting Romney over his Republican rivals. There was a pause.

“Well, I understand, ma’am, there’s a long way to go before the election,” the volunteer replied. “I just hope you’ll keep us in mind.”

Directing the phone-bank operation was Terry Sullivan, a thirty-three-year-old political consultant. As we spoke in his office at the back of the headquarters, Sullivan—dressed in a blue-and-white striped shirt, jeans, and flip-flops—pulled from a laptop on his desk a smattering of fund-raising numbers, TV advertising rates for various states, and other political detritus. “There’s a poll out today that shows McCain’s got 10 percent in South Carolina, and he had 36 in April,” he said. “Rudy’s got 28 percent, Fred Thompson has 27, and we’ve only got 7, but [Newt] Gingrich is included and that pulls straight from us—those are Mitt Romney voters.”

South Carolina is known for its hard-charging political consultants, and Sullivan is undeniably a rising star. After growing up in North Carolina and serving as youth coordinator for Jesse Helms’s final Senate run in 1996, Sullivan relocated to South Carolina the following year to work on a congressional campaign. Now he is a partner of TTS Strategies, the consulting firm run by J. Warren Tompkins, perhaps South Carolina’s most prominent Republican operative and Romney’s chief handler here. Although he was reluctant to go into details about who exactly was being targeted tonight by the campaign’s phone-bankers, Sullivan defined them broadly as “hard cores.” He elaborated: “We set out to identify and recruit grassroots activists, because no one else cares about the presidential election at this point. These are people who are just about guaranteed voters, the type who turn out even for special elections. Political campaigns are checkers, not chess. It’s largely about turnout, and that means coming out for a candidate they are excited about or to stop a candidate that they’re angry about.”

For at least two decades, our political landscape has been dominated by consultants; but there is no presidential campaign this year whose success or failure so will depend on media managers, marketing strategists, and political gurus as that of Mitt Romney. Unlike his chief competitors for the Republican nomination, he started out with a fairly low national profile and hence has needed to be introduced and marketed to a national audience. And the task of reformulating and repackaging the Romney brand—from the moderate Republican governor of the most liberal state in the Union to a red-meat social conservative and heir to Reagan—has been entrusted to an army of consultants far larger than that of any of his challengers. Campaign disclosure records are convoluted and poorly categorized, so it’s difficult to make a precise inventory. But based on filings with the Federal Election Commission, as of this summer, Romney’s campaign has employed more than a hundred different consultants, making combined payments to them of at least $11 million—roughly three times the amount spent by John McCain or Rudy Giuliani. Much of that money paid for the creation and placement of TV ads through Romney’s media consultant and chief strategist, Alex Castellanos, but the campaign also spent heavily on polling, political strategy, and voter mobilization.

A strong showing in South Carolina is critical to Romney’s ambitions. Since 1980, the year of the first primary here, no Republican has ever gained his party’s nomination without winning the state, which is traditionally seen as the “Gateway to Dixie” and a key indicator of Southern support. If Romney—who prior to running for president was deemed so moderate in his politics that Human Events magazine put him on its list of the top ten “Republicans in Name Only”—can win over South Carolina’s conservative electorate, it augurs well for his chances in states where the party faithful are less fervent. It is a daunting sales job, but Sullivan was confident that Romney’s poll numbers in the state would eventually rise. “Everyone here knows Giuliani and McCain, and who doesn’t like Arthur Branch?” he said with a smile, referring to the character Thompson plays on the television show Law & Order. “We haven’t spent money yet to get [our message] out.”

He was talking mostly about TV advertising, but only a month later, a striking reminder came to light of just how South Carolina consultants tend to get their messages out. The Washington Post discovered that an anti–Fred Thompson smear site, entitled PhoneyFred.org, was being run by an executive of TTS Strategies. The site was immediately taken down; Romney made pains to distance himself from it, and so—much less believably—did Tompkins, who claimed an employee had conceived and run the site without his knowledge. Whatever the truth of the site’s origin, the PhoneyFred episode perhaps most vividly showed that when one is contemplating how to sell Mitt Romney, the problem of phoniness can never be far from the brain.

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was Washington Editor of Harper's Magazine.

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