Mitt Romney’s hands-on leadership style: Micromanager or ‘chief decider’?

Holly Bailey
The Ticket
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BOSTON—When Mitt Romney decided to make an unannounced visit to the California headquarters of the controversial energy company Solyndra earlier this year, he did something he almost never does: He hitched a ride with his traveling press corps.

As Romney walked toward the rented charter bus, a wire photographer seated two rows behind the candidate's designated seat grabbed an iPhone and quickly cued up "Born Free," the Kid Rock anthem that has served as Romney's entrance song to the campaign stage for months. But to the surprise of many giggling reporters, Romney, who quickly took his seat in the front, didn't acknowledge the welcome.

Instead, the candidate immediately began going over the logistics of the visit with Eric Fehrnstrom, his senior adviser, and other staffers—all within earshot of reporters.

Romney and his campaign were determined to keep the visit a secret—paranoid the Obama administration might encourage local officials to stop Romney from using Solyndra as a backdrop. On the bus, Romney questioned aides about everything from the length and route of the drive to the location of his campaign bus, prominently featuring his campaign logo.

"It's not following us, is it? Because that would be a tip-off," Romney said to his body man, Garrett Jackson, who assured him the campaign bus was not in the caravan.

He talked to his aides about how the campaign was responding to a press conference that morning in Boston being held by David Axelrod, President Barack Obama's top political adviser. Romney staffers had organized a counterprotest of Axelrod's event, blowing bubbles and booing as the Obama adviser spoke.

Romney signaled his approval. "It's fair," he said. "They interrupt our events."

All the while, Romney took furious notes on a piece of hotel stationery from the Rosewood Sand Hill resort in Menlo Park, Calif., where he and top aides had spent the night. Scribbling on almost the entire sheet of paper, including horizontally in the margins, Romney crafted what he would say outside Solyndra, all on his own.

It was a rare and brief glimpse of Romney as the man some aides privately describe as the "chief decider" of his campaign, with his fingers in everything from the wording of his ads and his speeches to the basic stagecraft of his campaign.

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Romney's role as effectively both campaign manager and presidential candidate caused anxiety over the summer among some Republicans, including outside advisers to his campaign who fretted that he got too caught up in details and strategy instead of focusing on convincing Americans why he would be a better president than Obama.

"What Romney needs to be is a salesman," a Republican strategist who is close to the Romney team, but declined to be named to avoid being frozen out for complaining to the press, told Yahoo News last month, before the first presidential debate. "But he seems to be behaving like a consultant instead of really selling himself to the American people, and you can't win a campaign that way."

That frustration was echoed by columnist Peggy Noonan, a onetime Romney fan who called his campaign a "rolling calamity."

"The candidate cannot oversee strategy, statements, speechwriting, ads," Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, wrote in a column called "The Romney Campaign Needs a New CEO." She added: "He shouldn't be debating what statistic to put on slide four of the PowerPoint presentation. He has to learn to trust others—many others."

Over the summer, Romney scrapped the initial design of the Republican National Convention stage where he formally accepted the nomination of his party, sending designers back to their drawing boards. As he pointed out to aides, he possessed expertise in the area: He played a similar role in stagecraft as head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

The criticism of Romney's managerial role atop his campaign has subsided in recent days, as he has risen in polls after a widely praised performance in his first debate with Obama. But if anyone righted the Romney ship, it was the candidate himself. Those close to him say Romney personally decided to overhaul his message on the campaign trail, injecting his stump speech with more personal stories of people he's met and helped in his life. He has also offered a more centrist message on issues like abortion and taxes—all aimed at undermining Democratic claims that he's a political extremist.

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"At the end of the day, it is Mitt who decides what he is going to say and how he is going to say it," Tom Rath, a New Hampshire political consultant and longtime Romney adviser, told Yahoo News. "What you are seeing and hearing now is an approach and a message that feels right to him."

Like other candidates, Romney downplays how deep in the weeds he is on specifics about ads and polling—though he often betrays his deep knowledge when he talks to reporters by being quick to cite specific polling numbers and the exact wording of ads being run by Obama.

Multiple aides, who declined to be named so as not to inflame the candidate, acknowledged that Romney is very hands-on about how his operation is run—perhaps not surprising for a man who made hundreds of millions of dollars as the head of Bain Capital where his focus was to buy and turn around companies by paying attention to the smallest of details.

"Ultimately, it is his campaign," one senior Romney aide, who declined to be named discussing internal issues, told Yahoo News. "It is not surprising that a former CEO would take a big role in running his campaign for president of the United States. It would be shocking if he didn't."

Romney advisers dismissed the idea that Romney is a micromanager who should stay focused on the broad vision he is trying to sell to Americans as nothing but the usual "chatter" from Beltway types who aren't privy to the internal mechanics of the campaign.

'You will never find a campaign that hasn't been criticized by people in its own party," Charlie Black, a longtime Republican strategist and an outside adviser to the Romney campaign, told Yahoo News.

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Romney has structured his campaign not unlike a former Bain CEO would—with a corporate sensibility.

Romney sits atop the structure, bearing the ultimate responsibility. Below him is his campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, a workaholic Republican operative who prefers to stay behind the scenes and who works closely with Romney's political team, including the strategists Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer—who are responsible for the candidate's message and ads.

While President George W. Bush had Karl Rove as his chief political Svengali, Romney does not have a figure like that within his campaign—though Stevens is close. A former adviser to Bush and John McCain, Stevens helps Romney write his speeches and is considered to be the chief message guru—though those duties are sometimes divided among Rhoades and two longtime Romney aides: Beth Myers, who ran Romney's 2008 campaign, and Fehrnstrom, a former Boston political reporter who has worked for Romney since he ran for governor.

For months, there have been tensions over Stevens' role within the campaign—dating to the primaries when some complained that Romney focused too much on the economy at the expense of other issues. Tensions erupted again last month after a Politico story about the Romney campaign's missteps at the RNC, including finger-pointing over the decision not to vet Clint Eastwood's bizarre routine with an empty chair as well as Romney's decision to scrap a speech by two outside speechwriters in favor of one he crafted with Stevens' help that omitted mention of the war in Afghanistan.

A senior Romney aide downplayed the drama over the speech, telling Yahoo News, "It didn't really happen like that." The aide declined to elaborate further, and others within the campaign have declined to comment.

More recently, Stevens was the subject of yet another Politico story—this one claiming that the senior adviser had been shoved to the side after an intervention by Ann Romney, the candidate's wife, and their son Tagg.

Stevens, who has been at the candidate's side nonstop since the debate, told Yahoo News the story was "nonsense," while Kevin Madden, another senior Romney adviser, also insisted the story wasn't true—a story echoed privately by others close to Romney.

"It doesn't make any sense to any of us who are on the campaign," Madden said. "Everyone right now is working really hard and really well together—very focused on getting the governor's message out."

Several Romney advisers—both inside and outside the campaign—have pushed back on rumors that Stevens would be asked to dial back his role within the campaign in the final weeks of the campaign. Few people on staff are closer to Romney than Stevens—and, as one Republican close to the campaign points out, some of the decisions that Stevens has been attacked for were ones made by Romney, including the decision to go with a new convention speech and to host Eastwood onstage.

"Stuart is not going anywhere," a senior Romney adviser told Yahoo News.

But at the same time, Romney has repeatedly made clear to his advisers that he has not been happy with news stories about staff infighting, which he has complained has obscured his message on the trail.

Four years ago, Romney was annoyed by what he saw as unnecessary drama among the staff members of McCain's campaign, which spilled into the public in the final weeks of the election. He vowed to run a campaign in 2012 without that kind of infighting. Romney set up an operation where he would be the ultimate decision maker—and the person with ultimate responsibility—and he hired people who fit into that structure.

'The campaign he is running he created and designed, and he's comfortable with it," Rath told Yahoo News. "I don't think he feels there is a problem inside the campaign. … The role he plays, he's the only one who can play it."