Stuart Stevens is not that complicated.
People so often describe the man in charge of shaping Mitt Romney’s image, message and campaign strategy as unconventional, quirky or offbeat that you might expect his former clients to do the same.
"That is not the case at all," said former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. Stevens, he said, has a knack for understanding who a candidate is and what voters are thinking about.
People mistake his keen listening skill and ability to look past daily minutiae as eccentricity, Ridge said. "Listening is a gift," he said. "So is seeing beyond the daily bumps in the road and not panicking. I consider that his strengths, not a quirk."
Before 24-hour cable newscasts and social media platforms such as YouTube and Twitter, the general public rarely saw political strategists who crafted messages, crunched numbers and calculated electoral maps for presidential candidates, let alone knew their names or recognized their faces.
Today, James Carville and Dick Morris, the masterminds of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, and Karl Rove, the man behind George W. Bush, are recognizable figures in many households. And although President Obama’s chief campaign adviser, David Axelrod, the rumpled Chicago native with kind eyes and a sharp tongue, is a staple on Sunday news shows and cable TV programs, the man behind the inevitable Republican nominee remains in the background.
A native of Jackson, Miss., Stevens, 58, grew up in a Democratic household in a town and state dominated by Democrats. The Republican Party, he says, inexplicably drew him in.
"They were the thinkers, they were talking about people, about individuals," he says.
Understands the voters
Stevens’ love of politics began with a home state congressional race that his candidate won. His career blossomed in 1982 when former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour lost a U.S. Senate campaign Stevens designed against a popular Democrat.
"Everything I have ever learned about winning comes from losing," Stevens says. "Especially in that race. We went up against a good man for a pretty specific reason — he had been in Washington for too long. We made some good points; we made mistakes. I take those lessons into every campaign I have worked on."
Barbour admires Stevens to this day, though he lost the race against the late Sen. John Cornelius Stennis by nearly 20 percentage points.
"Stuart’s good people," Barbour says. "He has a fine work ethic and a brilliant mind that truly understands the needs and concerns of the voters."
Stevens went on to guide Barbour to gubernatorial wins in 2003 and 2007. In between, he fashioned messages and images for the presidential campaigns of retired Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain. He worked for many candidates for Senate or governorships — including Ridge’s surprise 1994 win.
"I was this relatively unknown congressman from Erie, a northwest Pennsylvania city closer to Cleveland than Philadelphia, who wasn’t particularly politically savvy," Ridge says. "Stuart recognized that all of those things were my strengths, rather than deterrents to winning a pretty crowded Republican primary."
Stevens designed TV commercials in which Ridge, a Munhall native, stood on frozen Lake Erie in front of a sign with arrows pointing to Buffalo, N.Y. and Cleveland. He held a placard that read: "A guy nobody ever heard of from a city nobody’s ever seen." In a second commercial, Ridge’s mother reminded him to put on his hat before walking out the door.
"They were pretty corny, and I got some ribbing from them in Philly," Ridge admits. "But they got people talking, and everyone knew my name by the end of the run of the ads."
Ridge won the five-person primary and then the three-way general election against pro-life Constitution Party candidate Peg Luksik and Lieutenant Gov. Mark Singel, a Democrat.
"Stuart Stevens is a name I will probably never forget. He is probably the central reason I lost the governor’s race," said Singel, a government consultant and lobbyist in Harrisburg who served as acting governor for six months in 1993 while the late Gov. Bob Casey Sr. recovered from multiple-organ transplant surgery.
Singel says his campaign’s internal polling put him several points ahead of Ridge until a Stevens ad linked him with convicted murderer Reginald McFadden, a man Singel voted to parole while a member of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. Singel’s popularity plunged.
"It was brutal," Singel says of the 60-second ad that enhanced Ridge’s tough-on-crime message. Though he calls Stevens ruthless, Singel acknowledges he is talented.
A driven man
Stevens says he’s simply a born competitor — who sides with the good guys.
He remains competitive, in endurance sports, when not campaigning. He biked the Raid Pyrénéen, a grueling 450 miles along the Pyrenees Mountains that bikers must finish in 100 hours. He skied cross-country to the North Pole.
He studied English at Oxford University and film at University of California, Los Angeles. He wrote travel books on Africa and China, political novels, and episodes for the TV series "Northern Exposure" and "Mister Sterling," a 2003 mid-season drama about a well-intentioned young senator.
In Washington, the one-time rugby coach has gone into political scrum and elbowed a few Republican teammates over the years.
Republican strategist Alex Castellanos has traded elbows with Stevens. "Sometimes they were sharp," he says. "I am not going to tell that we don’t have our differences, but you can’t argue with results."
"Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican nominee and has a very good chance of winning the general election," Castellanos says. "In large part that is because of Stuart Stevens."
Though Stevens lives 200 yards from Romney’s office in Boston, "I’ve been known to sleep here at campaign headquarters," he says.
On the job, he dresses casually in jeans or khakis and button-down shirts. He drinks strong coffee and keeps a desk so messy that he says "Ann Romney walked into my office recently and told me that her sons’ dorm rooms were cleaner when they were in college."
His bond runs deep with Mitt Romney, says former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, who has known Stevens for more than 20 years. Stevens is the guy with whom Romney dares to recite lines from his favorite movie ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), including the songs.
Romney, says Stevens, "does not want to be surrounded by yes-men." The atmosphere in their headquarters is "pretty free-flowing," he says. "There are no closed doors, and there are no ideas or concerns that are not explored." And despite his public image, Romney also prefers to wear jeans, Stevens says.
Theirs is an intimate staff, unlike the corporate Romney team of 2008 in which Stevens was one of many message-makers. Infighting and unfocused behavior among that team marred Romney’s first run.
Among those who typically work 18-hour days with Stevens is his longtime business partner, Russ Schriefer. Their 21 years together in The Stevens and Schriefer Group, based in Washington, "is longer than most marriages," Schriefer jokes.
Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades says Stevens’ greatest strength is his desire to win: "He’s such an intense competitor, it rubs off on everyone else around him."
"It is hard not to get mad when you lose, and it is hard not to feel cocky when you win," Stevens says of himself. "The key is, you have to avoid both."
‘We just try to get it done’
Stevens met Romney in 2002 and wanted to work on his Massachusetts gubernatorial run but another strategist instead helped Romney win that race.
On this campaign, Stevens, Schriefer and Rhoades are part of a core team that includes deputy campaign manager Katie Packer Gage, senior adviser Peter Flaherty, political director Rich Beeson, longtime confidants Eric Fehrnstrom and Beth Meyers, communications guru Gail Gitcho and pollster Neil Newhouse.
"All-nighters are common," Stevens says. "I was at an event the other day, and the advance set-up guys were sleeping on their gear in the back of the event" after working all night. "No one thought anything about it; it was just what you do in this campaign. Glad to do. Like to do, actually."
Yet, critics say Stevens is more an intense competitor than a true believer in what his candidate pitches.
He counters that, insisting: "I do believe the stakes are immense for the country, and the degree to which people are hurting, due to the actions taken over the last 3 1/2 years, is often tragically overlooked in this campaign."
He says he isn’t good at expressing the emotion he feels about Romney and this race, "But it’s there.
"… We don’t talk about it a lot, any more than guys and the girls in the Army walk around talking about patriotism all the time. We joke around and do our jobs, but it’s there underneath the surface. No one ever says no to any task in this campaign, and no one (complains). We just try to get it done."