Last November, when Mitt Romney’s top advisers were deliberating over his very first television spot of the 2012 campaign, Eric Fehrnstrom was the dissenting voice in the room.
The bare-knuckled Republican operative didn’t object to coming out of the gate with an attack ad. But the ad twisted President Obama’s words out of context, and the former Boston Herald reporter feared that the media would focus on the distortion instead of the message. He was right.
Two months later, Romney was facing a showdown in Florida against Newt Gingrich, who had been assailing his investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Once again channeling his tabloid roots, Fehrnstrom had a brainstorm: How about digging into Gingrich’s portfolio? Once again, he was right. Five days before the Florida vote, Romney turned the tables by countering that Gingrich, too, owned investments in the beleaguered mortgage giants. It was Romney’s best debate yet, and he handily won the primary.
“His experience as a reporter gives him unique ability to see around corners,” said Gail Gitcho, the campaign’s communications director. “When we sit down and try to think of the first question the press will ask, Eric thinks of the next 10 questions.”
Fehrnstrom’s long-standing relationship with Romney, which dates back to the latter’s 2002 race for governor, also gives him valuable perspective. When Romney has been forced to defend his Massachusetts health care overhaul, Fehrnstrom is the one who remembers every turn of the screw. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
“He is the institutional memory of all things Mitt. It’s kind of scary,” said Beth Myers, another longtime confidante who led the vice presidential search over the summer. “He really understands the way the governor thinks.”
But like most campaign operatives navigating in a constantly churning media cycle, the 50-year-old Fehrnstrom sometimes has been caught flat-footed. Remember the guy with the dark-rimmed glasses back in March who compared moving from the primary to the general election to shaking an Etch A Sketch? That was him. The clumsy metaphor was widely ridiculed and revived the rap on Romney as a shape-shifting politician.
Fehrnstrom also muddled the message in July when he said that Romney agreed with President Obama that the penalty for not buying health insurance—similar to what he established as governor of Massachusetts—was not a tax. That position contradicted the GOP’s tax-driven line of attack on the president’s health care law after it was upheld by the Supreme Court. Despite scattered calls for a staff shake-up, the campaign stuck with him.
Fehrnstrom doesn’t travel regularly with Romney the same way he did in the 2008 campaign, but he’s at his side for high-stakes moments, such as the announcement of Paul Ryan as running mate. Fehrnstrom also leads daily “messaging calls” with Romney and his top aides. “They obviously have a great deal of comfort with each other,” said Ed Gillespie, another top Romney adviser.
But as one of the chief stewards of Romney’s public image, Fehrnstrom could be blamed, in part, for the impression among many voters that the candidate doesn’t get them and their problems. Fehrnstrom has clashed repeatedly with reporters seeking more access to Romney, a strategy that could contribute to views of the candidate as detached.
In a setup that’s unusual in modern presidential campaigns, Fehrnstrom is also a top adviser to Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts. Both candidates are Republicans, but Romney presented himself as a rock-ribbed conservative to win the GOP primary, while Brown positioned himself as a moderate to win statewide office in his Democratic-leaning state. Such multitasking demonstrates why Fehrnstrom is one of Romney’s most valuable hired guns.