Ex-Huntsman and Barbour aide offers Mitt Romney some advice

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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James Richardson, a senior communications aide for Jon Huntsman’s presidential campaign, will join this week a prominent social media public relations firm.

Richardson landed in the Huntsman operation as director of online communications after Haley Barbour — for whom he was a  senior communications adviser — decided to take a pass on running last year.  With Huntsman’s recent exodus, Richardson has accepted the position of junior vice president of Hynes Communications, the media relations firm headed by former John McCain adviser Patrick Hynes.

In an exclusive chat, Richardson reflected on his time on the presidential circuit, his new gig with the man who built a bridge between McCain and online conservatives, and what Republican hopeful Mitt Romney might draw from both:

TheDC: If you were giving Romney advice on outreach to conservative new media opinion leaders, what would it be?

Just days into joining the Huntsman effort, my friend and tremendously popular conservative blogger Erick Erickson launched a searing broadside against the governor, writing he would “never, ever support him.” It wasn’t an auspicious start, but senior advisers took the threat seriously. They told me, “here’s your seat at the table.”

Most communication operatives would have rejected Erickson and conservative bloggers wholesale. Instead, our team kept the channels of communication open. In time RedState had thawed and even began cheering Huntsman’s candidacy and wonky policy proposals. Erickson’s softening, in particular, launched a wave of “second look” stories for the campaign.

Good advice. Your new boss, Patrick Hynes, helped John McCain do the exact same thing. What could Romney learn from McCain’s example?

McCain’s experience with conservative thought leaders is particularly instructive for Romney, whose own bid has been likewise treated to a dose of hostility.

In the depths of his campaign when virtually every political handicapper had discounted his candidacy, McCain never retreated from weekly conference calls with conservative bloggers. The senator’s sincerity and accessibility bought him positive press from the unlikeliest of sources — and at a time when the DC press corps had virtually shelved him.

If Romney is keen to see an immediate boost with this crowd, he need only start by engaging.

TheDC: Are Romney campaign aides doing their candidate a disservice by sheltering their candidate from press and bloggers?

Richardson: There’s no doubt it’s a tack for which Romney has taken a great deal of heat from the media and his rivals, with the campaign of my former boss launching a blistering critique of the Bay Stater as “scared mittless.”

When Jon Huntsman forwent his campaign earlier this year, the criticism of Romney’s limited interaction with press was assumed by his now-chief rival Rick Santorum.

… But is this fatal?

No swing state voter will cast their ballot for Barack Obama because the hyper-discipline of the Romney campaign has rankled their affection for the press. They didn’t hold it against Obama when chided eager reporters — you’ll remember “just let me eat my waffle” episode — or purchased a 30-minute infomercial that circumvented the press.

Yet … Romney’s relative silence with conservatives has stoked lingering apprehension — it has stung him. The dynamic might even explain why the governor has been the favorite and not the frontrunner in these last months.

TheDC: So you don’t think this is something that hurts him in the general election — assuming he gets the nomination?

The tumult of Romney’s courting of evangelical and tea party voters will largely fade as the two groups are confronted with the imminent reelection of the president. “President Mitt Romney” will have never sounded sweeter to an Alabama tea partier come this fall.

Matt K. Lewis