SACRAMENTO -- One day last month, the man who is putting Mitt Romney in position to run for president drove his silver Range Rover from his home in the Hollywood Hills to a small airport. There, a pilot employed for just these moments gunned the consultant's Piper Meridian for the flight to Sacramento and a meeting with another client: the governor known simply as Arnold.
Shaggy-haired and with a taste for expensive toys, a side gig as a script writer, and a stable of thoroughbreds that includes Romney, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, Arizona Senator John McCain, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mike Murphy is not your typical Republican political guru.
Lately, the candidate Murphy is introducing to a national audience is Romney. They meet monthly, and Murphy talks to Romney or his staff about twice a week. His strategy has some Romney admirers grumbling that the governor will both eliminate any chance for reelection in Massachusetts and become overexposed nationally.
''I'm totally confident he could run a reelection campaign and win it," Murphy said, responding to the criticism. Murphy kept open the door to a race for either governor or president.
Of the White House campaign, he says: ''Will he run? I don't know. . . . He's aggressively been testing the waters, because he's a smart guy, and that's what he oughta do, and he should decide this year, not next."
As with other candidates he has counseled, Murphy is open to charges that he has repositioned Romney, shading his client's credentials to look more conservative. ''The truth is [Mitt] is conservative," he said. ''He's no Bill Weld. This is the real Mitt."
Murphy used a far less delicate phrase to describe Romney and abortion (''a pro-life Mormon faking it as pro-choice friendly") in a National Review cover story this month. Murphy maintained he was merely characterizing the opinion of Romney's critics, not his own. Further explaining his excess to the Globe, Murphy offered an explanation that would have made the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson proud.
''I'm going to cut back on the LSD," Murphy said.
An uproarious character, Murphy calls politics ''a weird kind of show business," but he is among the most successful practitioners of the art of packaging a politician and directing campaign strategy.
He's been called everything from brilliant to overrated and ''the merchant of mud" for his love of negative advertising. In his toughest races, Murphy has been most successful when he is on the attack, and over a 22-year career he's had 13 wins in gubernatorial campaigns, eight Senate victories, twice helped to elect a premier of Ontario, and done consulting work in Panama, Croatia, and the Georgia Republic.
But he has never guided a candidate to the White House.
Romney -- or McCain -- could be his ticket, though if both decide to run, Murphy said he would stay on the sidelines. Both praise him effusively, and Romney backed him this month after the furor over his abortion remark, saying Murphy is ''a great friend, and I accept his clarification."
He's stuck with Murphy before, in a much tighter scrape.
A month before the 2002 election, Romney had blown a lead over state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien in the Massachusetts governor's race. Among Murphy's missteps was a cloying, 60-second spot that depicted Romney and his wife, Ann, as a storybook couple living the perfect life. It bombed. Panic was setting in.
''Mike came and said, 'It's not working. My strategy is wrong, and you either ought to change the strategy dramatically as I'm going to suggest, or you ought to fire me,' " Romney revealed in a recent interview.
Romney said he consulted another adviser: ''We said, 'Should we fire him? Should we get somebody new?' "
They tried the new approach -- attacking O'Brien. The campaign pressed her for more debates, and Murphy crafted devastating new attack ads. Two spots cast a sleepy basset hound named Duncan as an oblivious watchdog while men took bags of money from the state treasury.
It was Murphy at his creative and outrageous best: a laugh-out-loud funny conflation of loosely related facts, creating sinister innuendo.
Romney beat O'Brien by more than 100,000 votes, almost 5 percent of the total cast.
Looking back, Murphy said of the ad: ''When you have a negative ad that catches on as an entertaining thing, it's gold." Of the treacly bio ad, he said, ''In hindsight, I wouldn't've run it, but in hindsight, we won the campaign, so I'm not too troubled by it."
Whether Murphy teams with Romney for a reelection run next year or a full-bore national campaign starting in 2007 is a question that won't be answered for months. For now, he says he would drop out of the game if both McCain and Romney run for president.
Clearly, though, he'd like one more shot at running a presidential campaign.
''I might have one more presidential campaign in me, and that's it," said Murphy, who turned 43 last week.
Michael Ellis Murphy would seem an unlikely advocate of conservative causes. Raised in suburban affluence outside Detroit, he is the older of two sons of longtime Democrats. Of Irish, Alsatian, and Austrian stock, he describes himself as nominally Catholic.
''My father likes to talk about the stroller accident that resulted in me becoming a Republican," said Murphy, joking. With a wild, receding red mane spilling over his shirt collar, he resembles the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Murphy is casual in dress to the point of dishevelment. ''I own suits, but I almost never wear 'em. Partly, it's the shtick; partly because it's a pain . . . to wear 'em."
As he spoke, Murphy sat on the terrace of his sleek, modern home atop Laurel Canyon with a spectacular view of the Los Angeles Basin. The house, purchased 18 months ago for $1.2 million and renovated at a cost of almost $200,000, abuts a sheer canyon wall.
Murphy also owns a co-op apartment in New York City, a lake house with his parents in Michigan, and 39 acres in Nova Scotia. He said he hopes to spend more time in LA, working on script-writing and other show-biz projects that haven't quite taken off. His stint as a writer-producer for Dennis Miller ended last month, when CNBC abruptly canceled Miller's nightly show.
Never married, Murphy wants to settle down, though friends privately doubt he can decelerate long enough for a permanent relationship with a woman.
One wall of his home is filled with books. Other walls are decorated with propaganda art from the Soviet era and the Spanish Civil War. His office features an exercise bicycle, apparently used sparingly by the heavy-set Murphy, and a bulletin board with notes for about 10 projects, all in various stages of incompleteness.
His laptop screen-saver is a photo of French soldiers marching to the front in World War I. ''You have to feel for the French," he said. ''They were great once."
Murphy dropped out of Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service his senior year to become a full-time political operative. He describes his politics as ''pretty right wing . . . [with] libertarian instincts and the Jesuit concerns about moral relativism."
Parked outside are a leased Range Rover and a Mercedes-Benz CLK55 AMG convertible. ''It's a great country," Murphy said.
Within his business and among past clients, Murphy has many admirers but also some detractors, none of whom would agree to be quoted by name for this story. Their complaints are similar, however: Murphy is a self-promoter in love with his own ideas, and tightens the circle around the candidate to maximize his own influence.
Wins and losses
In response, Murphy pleads guilty to the charge of being a control freak.
''I've been in campaigns where there's some big, kind of UN debating society, and they were a disaster," he said.
That reputation has followed him to Massachusetts. When Romney press secretary Shawn Feddeman signaled she was ready to leave, Murphy recommended Julie Teer, who had been Bush campaign spokeswoman in New Hampshire. Teer, 29, is making $120,000 a year compared with Feddeman's $90,000 salary.
Speaking broadly about his career, Murphy said: ''I've got my share of sort of bitter, jealous rivals. . . . I'll take my record in governor and Senate races, and I'll put it up against anybody." He said he has messed up ''a couple of campaigns and won a lot of them."
His highest-profile flop was probably Rick Lazio's disastrous New York Senate race against Hillary Clinton in 2000. Candidate and consultant were rarely in synch. ''It was a rookie mistake made late in my career," Murphy said.
His greatest claim to fame was McCain's losing effort to George W. Bush, but it also produced a hail of criticism. Most of it relates to a remarkable
Critics called it self-serving.
''The Kurtz story turned out to be one of those great postfacto things where people got worked up, and I could care less," Murphy said.
In the article, Murphy admitted stonewalling a reporter about a McCain campaign phone bank in Michigan that sought to link Bush to the anti-Catholicism of Bob Jones University. Murphy is also quoted as describing the Republican Party as ''stupid," which may account for his description of himself these days as ''kind of a recluse in the structure of the Republican Party."
In retrospect, Murphy alternates between effacement and immodesty about his role in the McCain effort.
''All that campaign was was putting a picture frame around John McCain and letting him be himself because it was pure rocket fuel," Murphy said. Later, though, he talked about the shots he called in that dramatic race for the presidential nomination.
The candidate, who has yet to decide whether to make another presidential run, has nothing but kind words for Murphy.
''Mike is the most entertaining, most knowledgeable, and most insightful guy I have ever dealt with," McCain said. ''I am constantly entertained by him."
Neither McCain nor Romney sees any conflict in Murphy's role as consigliere to both. He had a similar arrangement in 1999, when McCain and Lamar Alexander geared up for the 2000 campaign. He had worked for Alexander in his 1996 presidential campaign. But after Alexander dropped out early from the 2000 race, Murphy signed on with McCain.
''He was absolutely straight with me. That was not a problem. I knew exactly where he was," said Alexander, who was elected senator from Tennessee in 2002.
Murphy's other presidential experience includes making a campaign video for Bob Dole in 1988, working on President George H. W. Bush's media team early in 1992, and for a brief period, making ads for Dole's 1996 general election campaign before being squeezed out in a shakeup.
Murphy's firm is paid a little more than $20,000 a month from various Romney-affiliated political committees; he is not now on the payroll of McCain or Jeb Bush.
His firm is paid at least $25,000 a month to quarterback Schwarzenegger's political strategy. More lucrative, however, are the corporate and interest-group clients who hire Murphy's firm to develop image-buffing campaigns in California, often around issues supported by the governor.
Within weeks of Schwarzenegger's election, Murphy's firm, D. C. Navigators, opened a branch in the old Senator Hotel, next to California's Capitol. The firm aborted a plan to lobby in Sacramento after a newspaper report said, in Murphy's words, ''we were trying to cash in" on the tie to Schwarzenegger, who appears in a life-size photo gracing the foyer of Navigators' Sacramento suite.
Standing near a desolate airstrip, Schwarzenegger is lighting a cigar with one hand while holding a guitar in the other. Murphy snapped the black-and-white image during the 2003 recall election that installed the action-film star as governor.
Between puffs on a cigar outside his office last month, Schwarzenegger gave much of the credit for his victory to Murphy, who cast him as a reformer in a campaign loaded with stunts and clever props.
To dramatize Schwarzenegger's support for cutting the state's tax on vehicles, Murphy initially proposed blowing up a car. That over-the-top idea was scaled back: Schwarzenegger presided as a 3,600-pound wrecking ball crushed an Oldsmobile.
''It's all so simple and clear the way he sees problems," Schwarzenegger told the Globe. ''He'll say: 'No, no, you can't say it in 15 sentences; it doesn't work. You have to say it in one sentence.' "
''It all goes back to how you sell a movie or anything else," the California governor continued. ''What's the movie about? Twins. It's Danny DeVito and me. Twins. People go [he threw his head back], 'Ha ha ha ha. I want to go see that.' End of story."
His poll numbers have taken a dive in recent months, after a barrage of ads by public-employee unions opposing a series of Schwarzenegger-backed reforms. In Massachusetts, Romney faces a similar problem.
Romney's in-state polling numbers have plunged as voters in one of the nation's most liberal states perceive him increasingly as a conservative with one foot out the State House door.
Spring polls that suggested flagging support for Romney's reelection were caused by ''people being confused about what he's running for," Murphy said. He points to data showing Romney's favorability ratings running 20 points ahead of his reelect numbers to bolster his argument.
But blurred ideology was a problem for Murphy's other presidential contenders, McCain and Alexander, as they moved from one region of the country to the next.
Murphy believes Romney's national potential is underestimated in Massachusetts -- ''the usual home-state thing," he calls it.
''He looks at the problems the country has, and he's instinctively concerned. He hasn't talked a lot about it publicly yet," Murphy said. ''But I hear him kicking this around and reaching out for intellectuals and other experts."
Sizing up his candidate, Murphy said:
''He's good at fixing broken stuff, he's a good communicator, he's got a real business background and a big brain, and he's a bit of a Boy Scout, which I think is appealing."