A former adviser to Romney, McCain, and others shares his outlook for the 2008 race

Mike Murphy has worked as a campaign strategist for some of the biggest names in today’s Republican Party, including Governors Jeb Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger and two current Presidential candidates: Governor Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain. His allegiances to both of these men have precluded his becoming formally involved in the 2008 race. During a recent stint as a Visiting Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, Murphy briefly sat down with HPR to share some of his thoughts on how the campaign is shaping up from the Republican side with the rapid approach of primary season.

Harvard Political Review: How is this John McCain different from the McCain who ran for President in 2000?

Mike Murphy: Well I think the McCain you see now is pretty much the same old McCain. The McCain at the beginning of the year, when he was the front-runner for the Republican Party, was McCain that was a little less free and loose. He was a little more strapped in as the party front-runner, which is more of a confining thing to be. And when that campaign imploded, he was given this freedom, and now he’s kind of back to the old McCain, and doing well. I think he has a chance to win the nomination. I think the one thing that’s different about McCain between 2000 and now is the war. He’s showing the same courage now talking about the war that he showed about campaign finance reform in 2000. The difference is that in 2000, the media thought it was great to be brave and take on campaign finance reform, but when you’re brave and taking on what most of the elite media—who differ with McCain on the war— thinks, they don’t seem to give you the same points for bravery.

HPR: Definitely. More generally, how do you feel that the Republican candidates are going to have to handle the association with the Bush Administration and its politics?

MM: Well I think the Democrats are hoping that next year will be a referendum—and nothing more than a referendum—on the Bush presidency. But I think, depending on who we nominate, that we’ll have a candidate with a unique record and a unique platform. We can take some credit for the accomplishments of the Bush years, and we’ll take some slings and arrows from the Democrats for what they think were the disappointments of the Bush years, but the election will ultimately boil down to our nominee—it may be a mayor or a governor, you know, somebody with his own story to tell—and the picture he paints of where he wants to take the country, which is more about the future than the past. So if the Republican Party does a good job, we will run a campaign about where we want to go from here—lessons learned, new ideas—and I think we’ll be really competitive. If the Democrats succeed in making the whole campaign backward-looking, you know, and an attack on the President, then we’ll have trouble.

HPR: To what extent is the religious right going to influence the party’s decision of who to nominate?

MM: Well, they’re a powerful group in the Republican Party, just like labor unions are a powerful group in the Democratic Party. I think Mike Huckabee has got a lot of that vote behind him, and he’ll do well in Iowa where there are a lot of Christian Conservative voters. In New Hampshire, there are far fewer Christian Conservatives so other candidates might do well. In the end the nominee may not—probably will not—be a candidate who is purely a candidate of the Christian Right, but it will be a candidate who they can accept, because winning is ultimately about building a big coalition.

HPR: So where does that leave Giuliani?

MM: I think it’s a problem for Rudy. I don’t think it rules him out all the way, but it is a major obstacle. I don’t think the Christian Conservative vote automatically elects Huckabee, although it could get him there or launch him to get there. It probably won’t get Huckabee but it will slow Rudy down a lot.

HPR: To what extent are certain groups of issues are going to be influential in the primary and general election campaigns?

MM: I think you’ll have the usual tension between foreign and domestic issues. I think the war will be an issue but it won’t be the only issue. I think the economy will be an issue, maybe a bigger one in a year than it is today. I’m not sure that cuts to one party or another. I think it just puts another issue on the voters and the parties are going to have to compete for those voters. I think you’ll see education as an emerging issue since that’s part of the economy and how competitive it is.

HPR: What about the “moral values” issue that seemed to come out of nowhere in the exit polls from 2004? Will that play a role?

MM: Well it’s out there in the population. The question is, does a policy issue pop up that harnesses that interest? So I think that will be part of the stew but I don’t think it will be the dominant issue. I think other things will prevail.

HPR: One last question. What about the Hillary factor? How does the possibility of her winning the Democratic nomination influence the Republican primaries and the party’s prospects for the general election?

MM: I’ve actually said for a year that I think Obama’s going to win the primary. By the time this comes out I could be wrong, but it’s a changed election and I think he might be more of what the Democratic primary voters are looking for. But if Hillary is the nominee, she’s smart and tough, but also polarizing. I don’t think that loses her the election, but it’s an extra burden that may give us a little more opportunity in a “bad” Republican year than we would normally get.