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GOP strategist at center of 2 big campaigns

Romney and Brown rely on Fehrnstrom

Eric Fehrnstrom (at rear) has often been fierce in his defense of Mitt Romney. Eric Fehrnstrom (at rear) has often been fierce in his defense of Mitt Romney. (RICHARD PERRY/NEW YORK TIMES/FILE 2008)
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / October 6, 2011

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In January 2010, he was the golden boy, the political operative who helped Scott Brown pull off what many had thought impossible: wresting Edward M. Kennedy’s old US Senate seat from the Democrats.

Since then, however, victories have been elusive for Republican strategist Eric Fehrnstrom, whose consulting group has lost its last six races.

Fehrnstrom is now trying to return to reprise his victorious ways as he juggles two of the most prominent campaigns in the country: Mitt Romney’s effort to turn his on-again, off-again front-runner status into a term in the White House, and Brown’s effort to fend off a suddenly strong challenge for his seat.

Winning both would not only emphatically end the losing streak, but would also make Fehrnstrom one of the few former ink-stained denizens of the news business to become a winning operative in the stratosphere of American politics. The most famous is probably David Axelrod, who transitioned from Chicago Tribune scribe to trusted voice in Barack Obama’s ear.

The Boston-born Fehrnstrom was schooled in politics as a reporter for the Boston Herald and then as a spokesman on Beacon Hill.

“He’s the best operative on the Romney campaign,’’ said Mike Murphy, the strategist who directed Romney’s 2002 run for Massachusetts governor. “I think he’s the secret weapon.’’

Fehrnstrom, 50, who declined to be interviewed, is the iron hand behind his candidates’ standoffish relationships with reporters. He enforces tight discipline on the campaign to never stray from message, while limiting unscripted encounters between the candidate and the press. He is known to lash out personally at reporters he feels are too critical of his clients.

He is also known for breaking the golden rule of political operatives: never let the story be about you.

In August, Fehrnstrom inadvertently unmasked himself as the author of CrazyKhazei, a Twitter account that mocked Democratic US Senate candidate Alan Khazei. The disclosure, made when Fehrnstrom apparently sent a tweet from the wrong account, forced Brown to publicly promise that his campaign would refrain from similar shenanigans in the future.

The Twitter snafu “shows that Eric doesn’t take off his warrior uniform,’’ said Charles Baker III, a former campaign adviser to Senator Edward M. Kennedy and the Kerry-Edwards 2004 presidential campaign. “But I assume that’s why Scott Brown said he’s keeping him. They view him as an essential part of their team. You dance with the one who brought you.’’

Fehrnstrom, of Brookline, and his political consulting firm, The Shawmut Group, were hot property after they guided Brown to his astonishing victory. Even political opponents developed a healthy respect for Fehrnstrom’s tactical skills.

“I don’t agree with his politics, but if I was a candidate, I’d like him on my side,’’ said Philip W. Johnston, former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

But Shawmut Group, formed with fellow Romney administration veterans Peter Flaherty and Beth Myers, has had the anti-Midas touch since Brown’s win: Everything they’ve touched, they’ve lost. To be fair, Shawmut runs GOP campaigns in the liberal Northeast, where Democrats normally enjoy home-field advantage.

His star candidates this time around are in tough but winnable races. Romney has held on while other GOP presidential hopefuls have bloomed and then withered. Brown is running roughly even with consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, the best-known Democratic challenger, in the latest poll.

Playing such a visible role in the two campaigns raises the possibility of conflicts. Fehrnstrom must juggle political events and help each candidate craft speedy responses to news events or issues.

“Inherently, this is not undoable,’’ said Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, who in 2000 managed the Al Gore presidential campaign and a handful of Senate races. “But you have to have the strategic resources.’’

As a political mouthpiece, Fehrnstrom does a fine Mitt Romney impersonation. Looking as tanned and well-coiffed as his boss, he calmly bats away hostile questions and delivers tart digs in frequent appearance in national television interviews.

That Fehrnstrom can sound so Romneyesque should be no surprise, as he has helped shape Romney’s communication strategy for a decade. He first joined Romney’s team during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, following a stint as the spokesman for Republican state Treasurer Joe Malone.

“There are not many people closer to Mitt than Eric Fehrnstrom,’’ Flaherty said.

It’s safe to say that during Fehrnstrom’s reign no other reporter will get so close to Romney. As the communications director when the new governor took office, Fehrnstrom throttled back the free-wheeling relationship that had existed between reporters and previous Republicans to hold the office. Out went the traditional scrums with the press, and in came ropes to give Romney a free pass to State House elevators without facing nettlesome questions.

In his battles with reporters, Fehrnstrom was dubbed “Mitt’s pit bull’’ by the Boston Phoenix.

“Eric was the best javelin catcher you could have as a press secretary,’’ said Alex Castellanos, who worked with Fehrnstrom on Romney’s last presidential campaign. “That’s a thankless and difficult job. Very few people survive to the next Olympics.’’

In the world of political operatives, where friendships often cross party lines, Fehrnstrom has a reputation as a partisan. “He’s not a hail fellow well met,’’ said Baker. “Eric’s sort of like a northeast Karl Rove.’’

Fehrnstrom’s aggressiveness has brought bad publicity to his bosses, such as the time in 2003 when he got into a profane shouting match with Mayor John Barrett of North Adams over Romney’s local aid cuts.

In 2006, Romney appointed Fehrnstrom to the Brookline Housing Authority, a $5,000-a-year post that would have enabled Fehrnstrom to qualify for a state pension. After unflattering headlines and under heavy political criticism from Democrats, Fehrnstrom resigned.

When he was spokesman for the 2008 Romney presidential campaign, Fehrnstrom’s scolding of Associated Press reporter Glen Johnson, now with the Globe, is a YouTube classic. Johnson’s offense, as Fehrnstrom saw it: challenging Romney over the role of lobbyists in his campaign.

“Eric is a very loyal, very fearsome competitor in the game of politics,’’ said Malone, who hired Fehrnstrom in 1994. “He has that in his DNA.’’

As a little-known state senator in 2009, Scott Brown was looking for help battling for Kennedy’s seat. Brown was the Shawmut Group’s first client of note, and his campaign gave Fehrnstrom a chance to demonstrate political and advertising skills.

“Eric understands how to play the free media piano,’’ said Murphy, the GOP consultant.

It was Fehrnstrom’s idea to use a clip of President Kennedy calling for a tax cut in a Scott Brown television ad in late December 2009. At the time, the Brown campaign was looking to make a media splash to capitalize on momentum the national GOP had quietly detected in an unpublished Massachusetts poll, said Flaherty.

“It came with an enormous amount of risk,’’ he said. “But this is what Eric brings; he is confident and decisive.’’

The Shawmut Group advised several other Republican clients in the 2010 elections: John Loughlin, running for the US House in Rhode Island; George Demos, a US House candidate in New York; Rick Lazio, a New York gubernatorial candidate; David Malpass, a US Senate candidate in New York; and Karyn Polito, a candidate for Massachusetts state treasurer. Shawmut Group also worked on the general election campaign of Jeff Perry, a US House candidate in the Cape Cod district, Flaherty said. None were elected.

The Loughlin campaign paid Shawmut $60,000 for its work, according to campaign filings. It was money well spent, insisted Loughlin’s campaign manager, Cara Cromwell. “Eric is like a messaging savant,’’ she said.

The savant took his lumps last November, but Fehrnstrom is positioned to cement his reputation in the company of Rove and Axelrod, if he can help Romney and Brown to victory.

“It’s a golden period for Eric,’’ said Johnston. “Most political consultants would give their eye teeth for those two races.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.