On the last day of May, David Axelrod, the journalist-turned-strategist for Barack Obama, ventured into enemy territory. Standing on the steps of the Massachusetts State House in Boston surrounded by state Democrats, Axelrod tried to rip into Mitt Romney's record of job creation as governor.
But Axelrod ran into a noisy roadblock set up by operatives at Romney's campaign headquarters located in the city's nearby North End neighborhood.
When word of the event leaked the day before, Romney's staff plotted its own counterattack, sending an army of supporters to engage Axelrod in a war of words. The Romney staffers and volunteers chanted:
"We want Mitt!"
Axelrod pressed forward, pointing toward the crowd. "These may be his only voters right here," Axelrod said, referring to Romney.
Obama supporters cheered, "Forward." The Romney crowd replied, "Off a cliff." When a rattled Axelrod asked if anyone in the media had any questions, the Romney crowd shouted, "Where are the jobs?"
The statehouse sparring had an intensity unusual for this early in the campaign, but it signaled that Romney's team, after surviving a feisty primary season, is not going to back down from any Chicago-style politics unleashed by the Obama campaign.
Romney's top advisers, responsible for the quick reaction force sent out against Axelrod, are an eclectic mix that includes a Karl Rove protégé, a former state house reporter, a film executive, a chad counter, and a writer of travel books. This inner core, mostly gathered at Romney's three-story headquarters on Boston's Commercial Street, are loyalists who worked for Romney when he was governor, those who share Romney's Mormon faith, and a surprising number whose resumés include stints with former President George W. Bush.
Romney's team does not seem to contain anybody like Karl Rove, a star in his own right who formed his own political brand. Underscoring this, none of Romney's advisors accepted my repeated requests for interviews.
"We stay in the background," senior adviser Beth Myers told the Belmont Citizen Herald in January 2011. Top strategist Eric Fehrnstrom even claimed, in a March email to the Boston Globe, "People don't care about the hired help."
Myers and Fehrnstrom form part of the tight-knit group of Romney devotees who date back nearly 10 years ago to his days as governor. "Loyalty and being a team player are two of the most important requirements of being a part of Romney World," said Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union. "If you look at the top six or seven confidantes of the governor, the one common thread is that they have been together for a long time, and the governor feels equally comfortable reaching out to any one of them at any given time."
Raised in Upstate New York, Myers, 55, cut her political teeth campaigning in Texas for Ronald Reagan in 1980. There she served under up-and-coming strategist Rove. Myers earned a law degree from Southern Methodist University and relocated to Massachusetts where she worked in state politics. In 1998, she chose to stay at home and raise her two children. She began as a volunteer in Romney's 2002 campaign for governor. The lawyer-turned-mom made an impression with her research skills while playing the Democratic opponent against Romney in debate rehearsals.
After his victory, Romney tapped Myers to be his chief of staff, a role she filled for his entire term. She now heads Romney's search for a running mate. Romney mentioned Myers by name on the campaign trail in Michigan earlier this year. "When you find people like that who stick with you for a long time you say, 'OK. People who know him best who are close to him on a day-to-day basis stay with him and are loyal to him and I'm loyal to them,'" Romney said.
The Boston-born Fehrnstrom, 50, the campaign's chief media strategist, could be considered Romney's Axelrod. While Axelrod covered politics for the Chicago Tribune, Fehrnstrom spent nearly a decade as a journalist with the Boston Herald, rising to become the paper's State House bureau chief. He left a job at an advertising agency to join Romney, serving as communications director during Romney's four years as governor from 2003 to 2007.
These long ties helped Fehrnstrom survive what has been one of the campaign's signature gaffes. During a CNN interview on March 21, Fehrnstrom, talking about the positions Romney took during the primaries and how they could impact general election voters, said, "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."
With Romney already defending questions about the sincerity of his conservative views, political rivals like Rick Santorum seized on the comment and began appearing on stage with the toy that erases words and drawings with a shake. But, in an example of Romney's loyalty, Fehrnstrom faced no public repercussion and remains Romney's attack dog on television.
Peter Flaherty, 46, took a more circuitous route to Romney's inner circle: The murder of Flaherty's aunt in Boston when he was 7 years old planted the seeds that led Flaherty to prosecute homicide cases as a former assistant district attorney for Suffolk County, Mass. He left the prosecutor's office to take an executive position at Walden Media, a studio devoted to family films like The Chronicles of Narnia series that includes The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian.
Flaherty jumped from entertainment to politics, serving as deputy chief of staff for Gov. Romney. An Irish Catholic, Flaherty has long been Romney's main liaison to social conservatives. He made sure Romney met with pro-life bioethicists and medical experts during the debate over embryonic stem-cell research in the Massachusetts legislature in 2004. Romney credits the meetings, where he learned about embryos created for experimentation and then destruction, with helping him convert to a pro-life position.
During the primary, Flaherty convinced five former ambassadors to the Vatican to back Romney publicly over his Catholic rivals. Flaherty met with and arranged for Romney to meet with social conservative leaders in Washington this spring.
This trio of Romney staffers from his governor's office banded together after his term ended to start The Shawmut Group, a Boston-based public-affairs consulting firm. The Shawmut group's highest-profile client not named Romney? A barely known state senator named Scott Brown, who surprised the political world by winning the 2010 special election for the U.S. Senate seat long held by late liberal icon Ted Kennedy.
While Romney aides from his governorship have yet to play leading roles in a presidential campaign's general election, more than two dozen veterans of George W. Bush's administration work or consult for the Romney campaign. These include Kevin Madden, the spokesman for Bush-Cheney 2004; Michael Chertoff, the former homeland security director; Margaret Spellings, Bush's secretary of education; Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under Bush; and several veterans of Bush's Justice Department.
Many of those are surrogates and policy consultants, but some Bush aides are now top Romney insiders. Matt Rhoades, Romney's campaign manager, joined the Bush White House as an associate director in the personnel office and then led the rapid-response team as research director for Bush's reelection efforts.
Rhoades, 37, is often described as the top strategy decision maker inside Romney's Boston headquarters. But don't expect him to become a television talking head like Rove or Democratic mastermind James Carville. Rhoades rarely travels with Romney and by all accounts enjoys life in the shadows. He almost lost his job at the Republican National Committee for being too quiet.
A 1997 Syracuse University graduate, Rhoades got his political start in Washington as an opposition researcher digging up dirt for the Republican National Committee. Dispatched to Florida for the 2000 recount, Rhoades, then 25, publicly accused a Democratic counter of eating a chad, the punch-card ballot piece designed to fall out when a voter makes a selection.
Stuart Stevens, Romney's main speechwriter and chief political strategist, is another veteran of the Bush-Cheney campaign. A Jackson, Miss., native who helped former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour win two elections, Stevens, 58, wrote about his time on Bush's 2000 campaign in The Big Enchilada, a book published in 2001.
"I still reveled in the sheer combat of campaigns, the smell of napalm in the morning and all that," wrote Stevens, who joined Romney during the 2008 primary after defecting from John McCain's campaign.
Politics is not Stevens' only writing subject: He has authored screenplays for television shows like Northern Exposure and books on China, Africa, and eating his way through Michelin three-star restaurants in Europe. He biked 450 miles along the Pyrenees Mountains and cross-country skied in the North Pole.
This spring the Romney campaign added to its inner circle another Bush alum: Ed Gillespie, the former Bush strategist and Republican National Committee chairman who is helping Romney deepen his ties with Washington insiders.
The Mormons on Romney's senior staff include fundraising head Spencer Zwick, 32, and a business partner with Romney's son Tagg, and former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, tapped in early June to lead Romney's presidential transition team. Leavitt, who also served as Health and Human Services secretary under George W. Bush, a decade ago selected Romney to oversee the troubled 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Conservatives have criticized Leavitt for positive comments he made earlier this year about Obamacare.
Romney also has a key business connection: Robert F. White, a longtime friend who worked with Romney at Bain Capital. White, 56, has been beside Romney from Bain Capital to the Olympics to the governor's office and presidential campaigns in 2008 and this year.
Political surrogates, such as former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent and former Minnesota governor and presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, also surround Romney. He has named about two dozen special advisors on national security and foreign policy and another four advisors on the economy.
This is a team that will face off against an Obama operation that in the early spring had five times more employees than Romney. In its downtown Chicago headquarters, the Obama camp has a unit of more than 100 statisticians, mathematicians, software engineers, advertising experts, and bloggers working exclusively on digital media techniques.
Romney's team is ballooning from 80 to about 400 full-timers. But even as the campaign absorbs new political professionals and dishes out new responsibilities, the top of Romney's pyramid will remain the mix of loyalists from Romney's governorship and the assimilated Bush veterans. It's a team that matured during Romney's Jan. 21 defeat in South Carolina, rebounding to win 10 days later in the key state of Florida.
On the same day Axelrod ventured into Romney's backyard, across the country in California Romney visited the shuttered plant once run by Solyndra, the bankrupt solar panel company whose millions in taxpayer-backed loans from the Obama administration sparked a congressional investigation.
As Romney stood in front of the building that now has a red "For Sale" sign hanging from the roof, reporters asked him about the Boston heckling of Axelrod.
"At some point you say, 'You know what, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,'" Romney said, pointing out that he is often heckled at events by Obama supporters. "If they're going to be heckling us, why we're not going to sit back and play by very different rules."