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GOP Primary Season: Helpful Or Harmfully Long?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Be careful what you wish for. After John McCain so quickly clinched the Republican presidential nomination the last time around, the party changed its rules with an eye to extending their primary season, reaping public interest for months like the long Democratic primary season of 2008. You might wonder how they feel about that now. John McCain himself has dubbed this campaign the nastiest he's ever seen - akin to watching a Greek tragedy.

We're joined now by Republican strategist Mike Murphy. He worked on Mitt Romney's 2002 gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts. Mr. Murphy is at member station KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. Thanks for being with us.

MIKE MURPHY: Oh, it's great to be here.

SIMON: Do you think this primary season is going to leave the eventual Republican candidate battle-hardened or full of holes?

MURPHY: Well, I think a bit of both. We're going to have a more capable candidate. A more experienced team. But they're definitely going to be some scrapes on him. So if you look at the polling of independent voters, clearly some scratches on Mitt Romney. But what those of us who have done a lot of these campaigns know is as exciting as it is now, this is only the end of the beginning.

SIMON: All that being noted, I think a lot of commentators, a lot of politicians, have talked about the fact that the - for weeks on end now the amount of invective and particularly with the rise of the superPACs and the kind of advertising that they've enabled has put a, I think, particularly bitter tone on this campaign. And, of course, these are Republicans talking about Republicans.

MURPHY: It's true. Primaries can be rough. But one thing we have to remember that, you know, the process has a bias of its own. There's an old joke among political consultants that if two candidates go out in the morning and give speeches. And one of them has a brilliant new idea for a better cancer research. And the other trips over the microphone cord and falls into the orchestra pit. The orchestra pit is going to lead the news. The media covers politics like sports, they like conflict. So the more negative the campaign is the more attention the candidates get for being negative.

SIMON: Let me ask you about a story this week that may not have disappeared just in one news cycle. And this, of course, Eric Fehrnstrom, senior adviser to Mitt Romney's campaign, was asked on CNN if he thought Mr. Romney moved so far to the right on certain issues it would be difficult to reconnect with independent voters in the general election. His now famous response...

ERIC FEHRNSTROM: Well, I think he hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.

SIMON: I think we've heard all the jokes at this point. And I believe Mr. Fehrnstrom himself said on Thursday that next time he'll mention Mr. Potato Head if he has to. But has there been to you are mind a real political effect from this remark?

MURPHY: You know, I don't think so. I think it's a tempest in a teapot. If the election were held tomorrow, I think it would because it's getting so much media space, and metaphors are dangerous in politics, 'cause people are always looking for subtext. The funny thing, the ironic thing, is Eric, who's a good consultant, I've known him for 10 years, we worked together, the point he's making about the arguments - not so much policy positions. That's where the thing got kind of morphed a little. But the argument is resetting in front of the country before the convention. The typical traditional beginning of the campaign is totally true.

SIMON: There's been speculation this week that people prevailing on Rick Santorum and or Newt Gingrich to exit the race. Is there any they left in party politics anymore? Any so-called party - if I might - elders, seniors who are in a position to put the arm on someone and do that?

MURPHY: Oh, that's a great question because, you know, when we think about politics a lot of people imagine Mr. Smith with a Taylor machine, a guy who's in straw boaters, giving orders in a boiler room somewhere. And politics was like that once. But now, there are various tribes of influence in both parties and they have their chieftains. But it's not like the old days where Tom Pendergast would get on the line and yell at some candidate.

So there he is a party establishment. It's mostly for Mitt. It's pragmatic. It's worried about how Republicans do in the Senate races, where we are poised to potentially pick up a majority and hold the House and win the presidency. So that crowd, the kind of technical let's win the election crowd, is starting to rip its hair out about, not really about Newt, because he's kind of off on Pluto having a campaign that's not that relevant. But they're worried about Santorum. If he stays in and doesn't get enough delegate support to win the nomination but makes the news cycle, the narrative of the campaign constantly about inter-Republican fights from here all the way to the convention, that's an opportunity cause for the Republicans and the professionals rather not have it.

On the other side of the equation, you've got the kind of professional movement conservative tribe and they enjoy a good scrap like this.

SIMON: Mr. Murphy, can I ask you to play Democratic strategist for a moment? Has this Republican primary season been good for you?

MURPHY: I think if I'm a Democratic strategist - and I'm very mindful of all the problems, political weakness the president has had in the last year - I'm thoroughly enjoying this Republican contest and I hope it goes on forever because I'm watching those ticket splitters - that 5 percent, 6 percent of the vote that go between both parties in those key swing states that will win or lose the election, and I'm hoping that the Republican nominee, most likely Romney, is taking damage with those voters that I can exploit.

On the other hand, if I'm honest with myself, I also know that my candidate has weakness and I've not been able to really wage a campaign to start fixing it till I really have an opponent. So I'm trying not to be overconfident. I'm telling the younger staffers in the hallway to quit high-fiving each other every time they see a news report about a Republican fumble because I know we're only in the third inning here of a very long game and our guy's got problems too and I'm planning for a very close election. But am I regretting this Republican slug fest? No, I'm enjoying it.

SIMON: Mike Murphy is a political strategist for Republican Party candidates, speaking with us from Kansas City. Thanks so much.

MURPHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.