Shots by Murdoch at Romney Play Out to Conservative Core
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.
Mr. 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, on Thursday, Mr. Murdoch’s flagship newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, published a blistering editorial criticizing Mr. Romney’s campaign, accusing it of being hapless and looking “confused in addition to being politically dumb.”
Mr. Murdoch has never been particularly impressed with Mr. Romney, friends and associates of both men say. The two times Mr. Romney visited the editorial board of The Journal, Mr. Murdoch did not work very hard to 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 stern reminder of Mr. Romney’s failure to win the trust of the Republican Party’s core conservatives, a group that pays close attention to Mr. Murdoch’s newspapers and cable news outlets. Though 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.
Mr. Murdoch’s dim view of Mr. Romney points to a palpable disconnect between the two men, one that has existed since Mr. Romney’s first run for president four years ago, people who know them both said. More than a half-dozen friends and advisers to the two, speaking mostly anonymously to reveal private and frank conversations, 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 Mr. 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 deeply prepared and animated — particularly on his love for data crunching — Mr. Romney failed to connect with either Mr. Murdoch or The Journal’s editorial page editor, Paul A. Gigot. Instead of articulating a clear and consistent conservative philosophy, he dwelled on organizational charts and executive management, areas of expertise that made him a multimillionaire as the head of his private equity firm, Bain Capital.
At one point, Mr. Romney declared that “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 Mr. Murdoch visibly taken aback.
The Journal’s write-up of that meeting would later glibly refer to Mr. Romney as “Consultant in Chief.”
Mr. Romney followed up later in the campaign with a second meeting in Mr. Murdoch’s office, but that, too, failed to light a spark. “I don’t think he ever got excited about Romney,” said one associate of Mr. Murdoch’s.
By the time the first Republican primaries of 2012 were closing in, Mr. Romney met again with The Journal’s editorial board. Mr. Murdoch sat in. “America doesn’t need a manager. America needs a leader,” Mr. Romney told the board. He wore a suit, which he changed out of for a more casual appearance on David Letterman’s show that evening. And at one point, according to a Journal staff member, he said lightheartedly, “I hope I’m getting better at this.”
The Romney campaign felt the meeting went well — so well that it was surprised when The Journal kept hammering him, reprising its complaints about his “inability, or unwillingness, to defend conservative principles.”
Fundamentally, Mr. Romney and Mr. Murdoch are very different. Mr. Romney is said to respect Mr. Murdoch as a visionary business mind and deeply admire how 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 very different world views.
Mr. Murdoch’s wariness about Mr. Romney is similar to the way many Republican primary voters initially felt about the candidate. Mr. Murdoch wanted anybody else, and could not resist getting swept up in the flavor-of-the-week fickleness that characterized 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, Mr. Murdoch urged Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey to run. Both men admire Mr. Christie’s gusto and toughness — a sharp edge they have themselves. “He really wanted Christie,” said one of Mr. Murdoch’s friends. Mr. Ailes, a former campaign strategist for Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, shares Mr. 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 election has been far more aggressive toward Mr. Obama than it has been kind to Mr. Romney.
Mr. Murdoch does much of his sounding off on Twitter, as he did last weekend when he suggested Mr. Romney replace his staff. Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, politely brushed off Mr. Murdoch’s concerns about the staff’s competence. “Governor Romney respects Rupert Murdoch, and also respects his team and has confidence in them,” Ms. Saul said.
Those who know him say that his fondness for Twitter is classic Murdoch. A compulsive e-mailer and phone caller, he has always had a hyperactive mind. And the impetuous, unfiltered nature of Twitter suits his shoot-from-the hip style.
Mr. Murdoch’s political influence in the United States has never been anywhere near as potent 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 something more of a complicated figure in this country.
Mr. Romney’s advisers say privately that having Mr. Murdoch sniping at them is better than the alternative. To be praised by him would open the campaign up to criticisms that it is a tool of the conservative establishment.
“To his credit, the idea that Rupert Murdoch doesn’t think something could be better run is unimaginable,” said one Romney adviser, who requested anonymity to assess Mr. Murdoch’s well-known self-confidence. “That’s just how he is.”
Last week, when the campaign invited a few dozen leaders from Wall Street, the news media and Republican politics to an informal discussion with Mr. Romney at a private Manhattan social club, Mr. Murdoch was one of the first to offer a suggestion.
Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster who was there, recalled that Mr. Murdoch spoke up after the chief executive of Univision, Randy Falco, told Mr. Romney that Mr. Obama had appeared on his network a dozen times and was building a considerable edge with Latino voters. (The meeting was first reported by Politico.)
“Every campaign attracts a fair number of critics,” Ms. Conway said. “But not every critic is created equal. Rupert Murdoch is a very important voice in the national conversation.”
When he spoke, Mr. Murdoch did not have much of a question — just more unsolicited advice, this time about the need to win over Latino voters.
“I hope that you’ll take the fight to President Obama,” he told Mr. Romney.