By Gary Delsohn — Bee Capitol Bureau
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Sen. John McCain needed help a few weeks back, so naturally the Arizona Republican called Mike Murphy, a top strategist in his 2000 presidential campaign.

McCain was looking for a wisecrack to use on a late-night talk show about unfounded rumors he would be John Kerry’s vice presidential running mate.

No one in politics is funnier, McCain said of Murphy, whose status as a top GOP strategist was only enhanced last year after he took over Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign and helped elect him governor.

“I spent several years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, in the dark, fed with scraps,” McCain told comedian Conan O’Brien about the Kerry rumor. “Do you think I want to do that all over again as vice president of the United States?”

It was vintage McCain. Vintage Murphy, too.

In addition to being a master campaign strategist and organizer who also helped elect about two dozen other GOP governors and senators, the 42-year-old Murphy is perhaps best known in political circles for his quick, irreverent wit, biting television ads – and his always disheveled and rumpled appearance.

Described by one associate as “adrenaline with feet,” Murphy has done well enough to own four homes across the United States yet still, as another friend has affectionately joked, “look like he’s homeless.”

A rapid-fire talker and story-teller who became a Republican despite being raised by staunchly Democratic parents in suburban Detroit – first lady Maria Shriver jokes that Murphy’s mother attributes the switch to a childhood “stroller accident” – Murphy has long been a regular on the political talk show circuit.

He is a media favorite because he’s likely to say just about anything to make a point. He once described his ad strategy as “make a charge, then have the other guy spend $1 million to answer it.” A secretary once ordered a vanity license plate for him that read, “GO NEG.”

He’s also quick to poke fun at the very business that’s made him a millionaire more than a few times over.

“This industry is like the Wild West, full of cowboys and outlaws,” he likes to tell interviewers – and sometimes politicians. “If I were a small-time congressional candidate looking for a consultant, I wouldn’t hire one unless I had a metal detector and a polygraph on me. Frankly, I’m thinking of quitting and going into something legit – like dog track races.”

Murphy’s aggressive style and high profile have generated criticism over the years.

A few years ago, in the McCain campaign, he gave exclusive behind-the-scenes access to Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post with the proviso that the tell-all piece about Murphy and the McCain campaign wouldn’t run until the campaign was over.

A number of people in the campaign were furious that Murphy drew so much attention to himself. McCain said he had no problem with Murphy’s arrangement with Kurtz and that he knew about it ahead of time.

But the incident prompted the former editor of Campaigns and Elections magazine, Ron Faucheux, to call Murphy “one of the most overrated consultants in the business.”

“There are some consultants who spend a good deal of time talking to the press and the press tends to expand their role and their influence beyond reality,” Faucheux said in a recent interview. “That happens with a lot of consultants, and he’s one of them.”

Dan Schnur, a GOP consultant who worked on the McCain campaign with Murphy, said Murphy’s not only very smart, he’s more than a little unpredictable.

“Mike has 10 ideas a minute,” Schnur said recently. “Seven of them are absolutely brilliant. Two of them are fairly standard, and one of them will end civilized life on this planet as we know it.”

Added Schnur: “I don’t think Arnold Schwarzenegger would be governor today if Mike Murphy didn’t join that campaign when he did.”

Murphy was brought in last August when Shriver felt the campaign needed someone with his experience and stature to take charge following early stumbles. Also advocating for Murphy’s involvement was media specialist Don Sipple, a longtime Murphy friend who did Schwarzenegger’s television ads a year earlier when he sponsored an initiative for after-school programs.

“When the campaign revved up,” Shriver said, “I called many people and I said, ‘I want the best operative in politics.’ People give you different names. And at the end of your research, you see which name comes up the most and then you go after him. That was it.”

Shriver acknowledged she was a strong advocate for getting Murphy on board a campaign that initially was headed by George Gorton, a former campaign consultant to Gov. Pete Wilson.

“You have to remember how quickly this formed,” she said. “It went from a small thing to an international campaign in a 72-hour period. You had to address that campaign as a presidential campaign. You needed a professional.”

Murphy met Schwarzenegger for the first time the day after Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who was going to run if Schwarzenegger didn’t, went with Murphy to see the movie star just as media around the world were starting to descend on him.

Murphy, who had agreed to help run Riordan’s campaign had he entered the race, told Schwarzenegger he wasn’t interested. Besides, once Schwarzenegger announced, Murphy had decided to take a long-postponed vacation to Mexico. He wouldn’t be available for several weeks.

Sipple, however, kept urging him to get involved, and Murphy went to see Shriver and Schwarzenegger six days later, cutting short his vacation. Within days, Murphy said, he “just kind of grabbed it all and ran.”

He and Schwarzenegger hit it off immediately. One reason they did, both men agree, is that Schwarzenegger took him aside and said he needed Murphy to talk straight and be blunt.

Don’t treat me like a movie star, Schwarzenegger told him. You’re the expert. Plot out campaign and advertising strategy and tell me what you need me to do.

“It’s quite a common conversation that I have with people,” Schwarzenegger said. “It’s no different than when I start a movie and we hire a new director or a different producer and I say to people, ‘I need you to tell me exactly what you need, and I don’t want you to sugarcoat it.’ ”

Schwarzenegger said he took virtually “every advice” Murphy gave him. “He was like the Godfather on putting his thought in there,” the governor said. “He mapped it out, and we followed the blueprint.”

In the first days of the campaign, after a heckler hit Schwarzenegger with an egg during an appearance in Long Beach, an aide observed Murphy whispering an appropriate response in the candidate’s ear.

“This guy owes me bacon now,” Schwarzenegger said moments afterward. “There’s no two ways about it.”

It was also Murphy whom Schwarzenegger leaned on during the campaign’s most trying moment, when allegations of groping and other improper behavior with women threatened to turn voters against him less than a week before Election Day, according to campaign insiders.

“I always say that wherever there is smoke there is fire,” Schwarzenegger told a rally in San Diego immediately after huddling alone with Murphy on the campaign plane. “So what I want to say to you is, yes, that I have behaved badly sometimes.”

He added that he was “deeply sorry” if he’d offended anyone – a startling admission from a candidate aides said initially insisted in private that all the groping allegations were untrue.

“When we had our backs against the wall,” Todd Harris, a campaign spokesman who works for Murphy said, “Mike was the guy Arnold looked to for advice.”

After Schwarzenegger’s election, Murphy’s Washington, D.C.-based firm, Navigators, opened a Sacramento office. It touts a high-profile list of California-based corporate clients, such as Calpine, Pacific Gas and Electric, Oracle and Sutter Health. Murphy, however, said neither he nor the firm will lobby Schwarzenegger or other California officials on behalf of their corporate clients.

Murphy conceded he is keeping an eye on the proposed constitutional amendment introduced in Congress that would allow foreign-born citizens of the United States, such as Schwarzenegger, to become president.

He insists, though, that friends and associates are wrong when they say Murphy’s ultimate goal is to elect someone president. What he’d really like to do is to go into movies or television.

“This is what people always tell me, and they’re so wrong about it,” he said. “There’s no mystery in that for me. I came real close with John McCain, one of the greatest people I ever worked for.

“It was great. But if I had a choice between writing and directing my own little dark comedy or being the key political adviser for the president of the United States, I’d do the comedy.”

Murphy is currently affiliated with comedian Dennis Miller’s cable TV show about politics and is working on several screenplays – with support and occasional advice from Schwarzenegger – that he’s hired an agent to help sell.

In the meantime, he’s handling other political work for Schwarzenegger. His firm ran Schwarzenegger’s successful debt-refinancing ballot measure campaign and will mastermind his efforts this November against two Indian gaming initiatives.

And he’s still proud of the hard-hitting campaign ads that have prompted some critics to call him a “political attack dog.”

The toughest ad he ever produced, he said, was in 1993 when he helped get Christie Whitman elected governor of New Jersey over incumbent Jim Florio. The tagline was “Florio: the worst governor New Jersey ever had.”

“It was true,” Murphy said with a chuckle. “People thought so at the end of the campaign anyway.”