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Friday, July 6, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.
Murdoch a tough — and important — critic of Romney's campaign
By The New York Times and The Washington Post
To hear Rupert Murdoch tell it lately, Mitt Romney lacks stomach and heart. He "seems to play everything safe." And he is not nearly as tough as he needs to be on President Obama.
Murdoch's thoughts on the Republican presidential candidate's prospects? "Tough O Chicago pros will be hard to beat unless he drops old friends from the team." Chances of that? "Doubtful," he tapped out in a Twitter message from his iPad last weekend.
Then, Thursday, Murdoch's flagship newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, published a blistering editorial criticizing Romney's campaign, accusing it of being hapless and looking "confused in addition to being politically dumb."
Murdoch has never been particularly impressed with Romney, friends and associates of both men say. The two times Romney visited the editorial board of The Journal, Murdoch did not conceal his lack of excitement.
"There was zero enthusiasm, no engagement," said one Journal staff member who was at the most recent meeting in December.
The editorial was a reminder of Romney's failure to win the trust of the Republican Party's core conservatives, a group that pays close attention to Murdoch's newspapers and cable-news outlets.
Although political strategists debate the ultimate impact of any single media outlet, what is written in the pages of The Journal and the New York Post and talked about on Fox News — all Murdoch properties — could have the collective power to shape the thinking of millions of voters.
As Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster said: "Every campaign attracts a fair number of critics. But not every critic is created equal. Rupert Murdoch is a very important voice in the national conversation."
"We have a country to save"
The criticisms from the editorial picked up steam during Thursday, and by day's end, talk-radio host Laura Ingraham had asked listeners whether the vacationing candidate should "get off the Jet Ski." Influential commentator William Kristol, who recently returned from a private retreat with Romney and his senior strategists, meanwhile, bemoaned the campaign's "dangerous self-delusion."
Without a course correction, Kristol said, Romney would suffer the same fate as the last two presidential nominees from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, both Democrats.
Romney's advisers rejected the course-correction suggestion but said they have been recruiting more political muscle to his Boston-based headquarters.
One GOP strategist not working for Romney said, "The campaign needs to show the GOP elite world and the media a lot of competence going forward or this shake-up talk will only get louder and continue."
For Romney, The Journal critique Thursday was a brutal exclamation point after two difficult weeks. One Republican strategist who works closely with the campaign acknowledged tactical mistakes, especially the campaign's handling of a Washington Post report about Bain Capital's investments during Romney's tenure at the firm in companies that moved jobs overseas.
The article became the basis of attacks from Obama and ads by his campaign that threaten to undermine Romney's business credentials.
The Journal editorial said Romney's campaign was too slow to respond and said of Obama's new attacks on Romney's foreign bank accounts: "If the Boston boys let that one go unanswered, they ought to be fired for malpractice."
The "Boston boy" who came into particular focus was Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's longtime chief spokesman, who on Monday put the campaign at odds with GOP talking points by saying the individual mandate in Obama's health-care law is not a tax.
Romney belatedly got in line with the rest of his party Wednesday, saying the federal mandate is a tax because the Supreme Court ruled it so.
Ingraham led the griping on her show, accusing Romney of hiding from a public debate over Obama's health-care law by taking a weeklong vacation with his family at their lakefront compound in Wolfeboro, N.H.
"I don't even think this is his fault," Ingraham said. She added, "This is the advisers telling him, 'Oh, it's fine. Take a week.' There's no week to spare. We have a country to save."
The Murdoch factor
More than a half-dozen friends and advisers to Romney and Murdoch, speaking mostly anonymously, said the Murdoch-Romney relationship could be summed up simply: They do not have much of one.
They have met only a handful of times. Their lukewarm feelings toward each other stem from their encounter at a meeting of The Journal editorial board in 2007, when Romney visited to pitch himself as the most capable conservative candidate about two months before the Iowa caucuses.
Romney and Journal staff members who attended said that despite being well prepared and animated — particularly on his love for data crunching — Romney failed to connect with either Murdoch or The Journal's editorial-page editor, Paul Gigot. Instead of articulating a clear and consistent conservative philosophy, he dwelled on organizational charts and executive management.
At one point, Romney said: "I would probably bring in McKinsey," the management-consulting firm, to help him set up his presidential Cabinet, a comment that seemed to startle the editors and left Murdoch visibly taken aback.
The Journal's write-up of that meeting would later glibly refer to Romney as "Consultant in Chief."
Romney followed up later in the campaign with a second meeting in Murdoch's office, but that, too, failed to light a spark.
Fundamentally, Romney and Murdoch are two very different men. Romney is said to respect Murdoch as a visionary business mind and admire the way he built the company he inherited from his father into a $60 billion global media power. But a teetotaling Mormon from the Midwest and a thrice-married Australian who publishes photos of topless women in one of his British newspapers are bound to have different world views.
Murdoch's wariness about Romney is similar to the way many Republican primary voters initially felt about the candidate. Murdoch, who was born in Australia but became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1985, wanted anybody else and could not resist getting swept up in the flavor-of-the-week fickleness that gummed up this year's Republican nominating process. He wrote glowing Twitter messages about Rick Santorum, calling him the only candidate with a "genuine big vision" for the country.
Along with Roger Ailes, chairman of Fox News, Murdoch urged Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey to run. Both men admire Christie's gusto and toughness.
Ailes, a former campaign strategist for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, shares Murdoch's disdain of how the Romney campaign is being run, telling people privately that it is too soft.
Although Fox News has been cast by liberal critics as an arm of the Romney campaign, its coverage of the presidential campaign has been far more aggressive toward Obama than it has been kind to Romney.
Murdoch does much of his sounding off on Twitter, as he did last weekend when he suggested Romney replace his staff. Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, politely brushed off Murdoch's concerns. "Gov. Romney respects Rupert Murdoch and also respects his team and has confidence in them," Saul said.
Murdoch's political influence in the United States has never been as powerful as it was in Britain, where he once slipped into a private meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron through the back door of 10 Downing Street. But the phone-hacking scandal has left him greatly diminished there and rendered him a complicated political hot potato in this country.
Romney's advisers say privately that having Murdoch sniping at them is better than the alternative. To be praised by him would open the campaign to criticisms that it is a tool of the conservative establishment.
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