By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Word comes from the GOP presidential campaign trail that Stuart Stevens, the adventurous ex-Jacksonian who built national creds as an unconventional political guru, is Mitt Romney’s top strategist, tasked with retrofitting the former Massachusetts governor’s strait-laced image.
Would you believe that Stevens, then just 29, handled ads for Haley Barbour’s ill-fated attempt in 1982 to unseat scholarly Democrat John Stennis, noted for years as the U.S. Senate’s leading national defense authority?
And it was the brash Stevens who came up with the idea at the Neshoba County Fair of presenting the venerable Stennis with a “happy 82nd” birthday cake topped by burning candles. A thoughtful gesture, of course! At least, some wiser heads called off the charade.
In his first political adman venture, Stevens, now 59, helped handsome young Republican Jon Hinson win the 4th District congressional seat in an upset. Hinson in 1981 got caught committing a homosexual act in the men’s room of a House office building and had to resign.
Along the way of his four-decade career as a political strategist, Stevens has had some notable winners as well as losers. No winner, of course, was bigger than to be on the inside of George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential team holed up in an Austin bunker to grind out campaign stuff.
Out of that campaign, Stevens in 2001 produced a book, “The Big Enchilada: Campaign Adventures With a Cock-eyed Optimist from Texas” that was more about merry pranksters than it was a kiss-and-tell. In it, the ruggedly-handsome Stevens tells in great detail how he prepared the setup for Bush at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia that sealed the deal for Dubya’s nomination.
Of course, Stevens had a hand in Barbour’s successful 2003 campaign for the Mississippi governorship, but for some strange reason, Haley kept him in the shadows as though he never existed.
Stuart Stevens, though not without detractors within his own Republican ranks for his cockiness, nevertheless is adept at the old GOP campaign standby – dirty tricks. Makes you wonder what little shives Stevens slipped into Barbour’s unseating of Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in 2003. Though he had a bunch of assets to run on (not the least landing the state’s first automobile plant), Musgrove could never get any traction against Barbour, even though Haley had spent the previous 25 years in Washington, DC as a fat-cat GOP operative.
With Stevens on board the Romney team, Stuart finds himself on the other side in the Republican presidential derby from Barbour, who according to some reports is backing his fellow Southern governor, Rick Perry. Still highly regarded for his ties to Republican fundraising heavyweights, Barbour was considered a possible aspirant for the GOP presidential nomination until last June when he removed himself from contention.
Stevens delights in what he calls endurance sports, ranging from triathlons, to mountain biking, to eating his way across Europe in order to find the “perfect” meal, all of which have provided grist for five travel books.
Mitt’s makeover by Stevens has been readily apparent as the multimillionaire businessman has shed the Gucci shoes and pin-points for loafers, casual khakis and open-necks and tweets (ad nauseam) his lip-smacking reviews of hamburger-and-fries lunches at a well-known ‘burger eatery in New Hampshire.
As The New York Times’ Ashley Parker reported after trekking with Stevens on the presidential campaign beat, Stevens “likes to devise a central message around which he believes are his candidate’s signature strengths.” That’s how Romney hopes to differentiate himself from the Republican pack by emphasizing his experience in the business world gives him credibility for job creation and fixing the economy.
Rest assured, Stuart Stevens’ services don’t come cheap. Another Mississippian breaking the curse of the Deep South?
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.