Trump-Bashing, Romney-Advising Political Operative Stuart Stevens Finds Himself in Vermont | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
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Trump-Bashing, Romney-Advising Political Operative Stuart Stevens Finds Himself in Vermont 

click to enlarge Stuart Stevens - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
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  • Stuart Stevens

Stuart Stevens was looking for a fight, and he'd come to the right place.

In the basement of Stowe's Phit Gym & Classes, the 64-year-old Vermont transplant nodded his head and clenched his fists as trainer Ernie Roick ran through the basics of Krav Maga, the cutthroat martial arts technique developed for the Israeli Defense Forces.

"I will always say, 'Listen, I don't want any trouble," Roick said, holding his hands in front of him, palms out, fingers spread wide. "'I think we can settle this another way.'"

Stevens, dressed in black cycling gear and sporting a blue headband over his gray hair, stood two feet away from Roick, facing a wall-length mirror. He shifted his weight between his left leg, which was encumbered by a knee brace, and his right.

"Mmm-hmm," Stevens murmured.

"What I'm really saying is," the instructor continued, "'If this gets hot, I'm going to cave your throat in. I'm going to scratch your retina — and bite the tip of your nose off.'"

Stevens grinned through clenched teeth. This was his kind of sport.

A genteel Southerner born to a family of lawyers and judges, the seventh-generation Mississippian nevertheless loves a good fight.

"It's the best thing about politics," Stevens said earlier that morning over a plate of eggs and tomatoes at McCarthy's Restaurant on Stowe's Mountain Road. "When you're working campaigns, if you like to fight — and I really like to fight — it's a good, socially acceptable way as an adult to get paid to fight."

Stevens has made a career of it. Over the past four decades, the Republican ad maker and strategist has helped elect dozens of congressmen, senators and governors — more than anyone else in the business, he claims. After shooting a short biographical film for 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, he held high-level jobs on four more White House races — cutting ads for president George W. Bush's successful bids and advising Mitt Romney during his two unsuccessful ones, the second time as senior strategist.

One Republican he didn't advise: President Donald Trump, whom he relentlessly savaged during the 2016 campaign as a "uniquely unqualified," infantile, faux-conservative "racist idiot."

In the months since Trump took office, Stevens has retreated to the Lamoille County house he has occasionally called home over the past 25 years. There, he has licked his wounds and pondered his next moves. The national political star, whose presence in Vermont is largely unknown, is even considering what he used to deem unthinkable: playing a greater role in the state's politics.

If love of the fight is what drew Stevens to the political arena, it's the transitory nature of the business that has sustained its appeal. He likens campaigns to "migrant labor work" — albeit, of the high-priced variety — which give him the time and money to pursue his more peculiar passions.

Between election cycles, Stevens has skied the last 100 kilometers to the north pole, cycled the 1,200-kilometer Paris-Brest-Paris race, eaten his way through every three-star Michelin restaurant in Europe and attended a season's worth of University of Mississippi football games with his 95-year-old father. These adventures and more fill the pages of the seven novels, memoirs and travelogues he has written.

"He really is the Renaissance man," Romney told Seven Days. "There are not a lot of people in our day and age that are authors, political strategists and extreme sports enthusiasts."

During Romney's 2012 campaign, journalists couldn't help but note that Stevens was everything his bland boss was not. The New Republic dubbed the two, "the square and the flair."

"Well, he is more interesting," Romney conceded. "I mean, you always want to hang out with people who are smarter or more interesting than you. Otherwise, you'd be bored."

In the Phit gym, Roick moved on to the next principle of Krav Maga.

"There's a word in Hebrew called retzev," he said, spinning on his left foot to face Stevens. "And it means kind of a flurry of movements reaching for a result. So instead of a big ol' haymaker punch in a fight—"

Roick interrupted himself to throw his right fist in Stevens' direction, arresting its progress a few inches from his student's craggy visage.

"If you hit me once, I'm gonna come back," Roick continued. "But if, all of a sudden, retzev takes place — where you're kicking my knee, head-butting my face, a shot to the groin — now I don't know what's coming at me. That's what retzev is."

The concept was not foreign to Stevens. For much of the 2016 race, the lifelong Republican had advocated a form of retzev against Trump.

"When in a fight and an opponent doesn't fall down when hit, you don't stop hitting," Stevens told the Washington Post that February, after Trump won a string of primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. "To win, you hit harder and faster and look for any opening to land more punches. So it is with a campaign."

Stevens' constant criticism on cable television and social media clearly rattled the future president, who took to Twitter seven times to lambaste him. "Political strategist Stuart Stevens, who led Romney down the tubes in what should have been an easy victory, has terrible political instincts!" Trump wrote in October 2015. Stevens, he later added, is "a zero," an "arrogant guy," "a clown" and "a dumb guy who fails @ virtually everything he touches."

Back home in Vermont, Stevens has spent the first months of the new presidency skiing, hiking, writing and trolling Trump on Twitter. In his self-imposed exile, he has bemoaned the state of a party he spent his life building.

"I think the greatest failing of the Republican Party predated Trump. But it's only getting worse. It's a failure to attract nonwhite voters," Stevens said. "You can't have a big, diverse country like America and not have a big, diverse party and have moral standing."

As the Krav Maga lesson concluded and Stevens changed out of his workout clothes, Roick shared one last lesson with his pupil.

"My dad taught me when I was little — very little — that the challenge ahead is not the mountain," the trainer said. "It's the pebble in the shoe."

"I love it!" Stevens exclaimed in his distinctive Southern drawl. "I love it. Thank you, brotha."

'I Like the North'

click to enlarge politics1-5-56770395c008e8cb.jpg

J.D. Callahan, the protagonist in Stevens' latest political thriller, The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear, bears a striking resemblance to its author. He's a peripatetic political consultant with Southern roots charged with winning the Republican presidential nomination for a former New England governor.

One key difference? Callahan's client is Vice President Hilda Smith, an aloof Yankee who got her start in the Vermont legislature and served as governor of the Green Mountain state. Such a candidate would normally be off-limits to Stevens — precisely because she's from Vermont.

"I don't ever like to do politics in any state that I spend time in, because I don't want to go to dinner parties and have people yelling at me like, 'Why did the governor do this?!'" he explained.

Stevens has never lifted a finger for the state GOP nor earned a dime from a Vermont candidate. He steers clear of the state's press corps and for more than two years resisted Seven Days' attempts to profile him. Even now, he refuses to discuss his personal life on the record, other than to say he has no children.

"I think he's pretty private," said Biddle Duke, a former publisher of the Stowe Reporter who has skied with Stevens on occasion. "He leads quite a public life, and I think he sort of likes to disappear in Stowe, basically."

Stevens first came to Vermont in 1976 to pursue a master's degree at Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English. The Colorado College graduate had studied at Oxford University and the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, but it was his four summers at Middlebury that he called "by far the best academic experience I ever had."

Though he grew up in sweltering Jackson, Miss., Stevens soon fell in love with Vermont winters. After taking up cross-country skiing in the 1980s, he trained at Stowe's Trapp Family Lodge and the Craftsbury Outdoor Center for his first major endurance competition: the Worldloppet, a series of 10 ski marathons in 10 countries over eight weeks.

"I've always been drawn to cold places. It's weird," he said. "I like the north."

Since 1991, Stevens has lived, on and off, in a modest home on the outskirts of Stowe. Just how much time he spends there depends on the year and the season. He packed up and moved to Austin, Texas, for the first Bush campaign and to Boston for both Romney campaigns. From Labor Day to Election Day most even-numbered years, he relocates to Washington, D.C., or Annapolis, Md., where his political consulting firm is now based. Stevens also owns abodes in New Hampshire, California and the skiing mecca of Mont-Sainte-Anne, Québec.

Three weeks ago, Stevens stood outside his Vermont home — a three-bedroom cape with peeling blue paint. He gestured past a manicured lawn toward an overgrown meadow, framed by the sloping blue mountains of the Worcester Range.

"You're looking at Camel's Hump," he said erroneously, pointing southeast at Hunger Mountain. "That's straight west."

Inside the house, Stevens took a seat in a light-splattered first-floor library and explained his mixed feelings about Vermont politics.

"Part of it is, I don't think I have anything to bring to it here," he said. "One of the keys to being successful in politics is being very humble about what you don't know."

Recently, though, Stevens has started paying closer attention. State Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) said he called out of the blue a few years ago, invited her to coffee and quizzed her on Vermont politics.

"He was interesting and interested, which I thought was pretty neat," she said. "I did not know who he was prior to him contacting me."

Last year, Stevens went further, offering informal advice to then-gubernatorial candidate Phil Scott.

"I knew of him from strategist circles," said Scott campaign aide Jason Gibbs, who served as an intermediary and later became the governor's chief of staff. "When I heard his name, I was like, 'Are you kidding me? He lives in Vermont?'"

As Scott prepared to debate Democratic nominee Sue Minter, Stevens sat down with the future governor to share what he calls his "nutty theories about debate prep."

His advice? A candidate should do something enjoyable, such as exercise, before prep sessions and debates. Aim to create "two to four 'moments'" focused on a winning argument and steer questions toward those arguments. Most importantly, avoid developing stock lines.

"Having worked with a lot of actors, actors can't deliver lines on the first take, much less politicians," Stevens said with a laugh. "I mean, it's the road to hell."

Scott's takeaway from the session, according to Gibbs? Go for a pre-debate bike ride.

The consultant has put his "nutty theories" into practice before, moderating mock debates for Bush and vice president Dick Cheney — and running Romney's debate prep. While he's only offered unpaid advice to Scott so far, he said he would "like to be more involved now" in Vermont politics.

"I'm a big Phil Scott fan," he said, pointing in particular to the Republican governor's public chiding of the president. "I like how he's been himself on the Trump stuff. I don't think he's going out of his way to pick a fight for political purposes. He's just sort of said what he thought."

'Good on Race'

Stevens traces his political obsession and Republican allegiance to a childhood in the 1960s Deep South, which was dominated by segregationist Democrats.

In The Last Season: A Father, a Son, and a Lifetime of College Football, his 2015 memoir, Stevens describes sitting in a high school locker room on a foggy night on the Gulf Coast in 1967. The 15-year-old watched his father, a prominent Jackson attorney and former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, try to persuade Mississippi gubernatorial candidate William Winter to skip a planned rally. Winter, who was running against the avowed segregationist John Bell Williams, had received multiple death threats.

"It was the bravest thing I'd ever seen," Stevens said of Winter's decision to walk onto the field. "In those days, in Mississippi, politics couldn't have been more dramatic or passionate or important."

Decades later, in the spring of 2014, Stevens returned to Mississippi for another dramatic moment.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), for whom Stevens had volunteered in 1972, was facing a fierce challenge by a Tea Party-backed trial lawyer barely half his age. In the first round of a primary election, Chris McDaniel outpolled Cochran by 1,481 votes — but because neither candidate won an outright majority, a runoff was scheduled for three weeks hence.

"It was really important that Cochran win that race," Stevens said, explaining that McDaniel supporters "represented a really dark side."

To Stevens, the contest threatened a return to the state's past.

"When I was growing up, there was this phrase people used: 'Is he good on race?'" the consultant said. "Cochran was always on the right side of that."

With Stevens' help — and that of a last-minute endorsement by Mississippi football legend Brett Favre — Cochran won the runoff, defeating McDaniel by 7,667 votes.

Stevens says he was "drawn to the Republican Party by compassionate conservatism," but now he wonders whether the GOP is still "good on race." For a political consultant who has made his fortune winning in politics, it's both a moral and a practical concern.

When he moved to Austin in 1999 to work on Bush's media team, the first footage Stevens shot of the Texas governor came from a bridge-opening ceremony on the Mexican side of the border. The first ad the campaign ran in Iowa that year focused on Latino voters.

"Probably five Hispanics were going to caucus, but we thought it was so important to send a signal — to define Bush," he said.

That year, according to the Pew Research Center, 13.2 million Hispanics were eligible to vote. By 2016, 27.3 million were. In the same period, the number of eligible white voters declined from 78 to 69 percent of the electorate.

"Trump's base is high school- or less-educated white voters," Stevens noted. "Unless white people can figure out how to stop dying — which, as a white person, I'm all for — I'm skeptical Republicans can keep winning."

Stevens first met Trump during the 2012 campaign when the New York real estate developer endorsed Romney at his Nevada hotel and then demanded, without success, to fly around the country with the nominee and deliver a convention speech.

"It wasn't like I was some Trump hater. I just thought he was particularly ill-suited to be president," he said. "Neither is Jack Nicholson, but I love Jack Nicholson."

Stevens, who sat out the 2016 race and says he voted for independent Evan McMullin, was equally unimpressed with Trump's campaign team.

"These were just people who never really worked in politics," Stevens said, noting that campaign manager Corey Lewandowski "had never been involved in a winning statewide race in his life" and calling campaign chair Steve Bannon an "amusing lunatic."

"I mean, these are people you wouldn't share a cab with," he said with a mix of bewilderment, jealousy and contempt.

Stevens opposed Trump's candidacy for many reasons, but chief among them was his denigration of Mexicans and his apparent comfort with white nationalists. In February 2016, when Trump declined to renounce the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Stevens wrote in a Daily Beast column that it was no longer possible "to pretend that Trump is not only an idiot but also a racist idiot."

Throughout the campaign, Stevens had argued that there simply weren't enough white voters in America to put Trump in the White House.

"Turns out I was wrong," Stevens said. "But if the Republican Party is unable to get higher margins of nonwhite voters, it'll kill us eventually."

He paused to summon the proper metaphor.

"It's sort of like somebody who has several drinks at a cocktail party and drives home, makes it home safely and concludes that alcohol helps you drive," he said. "Probably the wrong conclusion."

'The Secret to Success'

click to enlarge Mitt Romney (left) and Stuart Stevens talking aboard the Romney campaign plane in October 2012 - AP PHOTO/CHARLES DHARAPAK
  • Ap Photo/charles Dharapak
  • Mitt Romney (left) and Stuart Stevens talking aboard the Romney campaign plane in October 2012

On an Indian summer morning in mid-September, Stevens limped his way along the Sugar Road ski trail at Trapp Family Lodge with the help of two spring-loaded Swedish trekking poles. A torn meniscus had interrupted his summer schedule of trail runs and bike rides, and it was slowing his pace even on the level terrain of Trapp's beginner trails.

As he jabbed one pole after another into the ground, Stevens recalled a 1978 phone call that had changed his life. Cochran was leaving the U.S. House to run for the Senate, and his chief of staff, Jon Hinson, had decided to seek the seat.

"[Hinson] called me and said, 'I can't afford to hire anyone. You're in film school, so you have to make ads for me,'" Stevens recalled. "That's when I found out people would pay me money to make political commercials."

For the first and last time in his life, Stevens took a job in government, working for a brief stint in Hinson's congressional office. He was outraged to learn that members of Congress could use the so-called franking privilege to send political mail at taxpayer expense. So he contacted an editor at Washington Monthly and offered to write an anonymous exposé about the practice. In print, he used the pseudonym William Bonney — an alias once used by Billy the Kid.

"I was probably, like, the worst staffer in the history of Washington," Stevens conceded as he hiked up Sugar Road.

While Stevens was establishing himself as a serious ad maker in the late 1980s, he kept crossing paths with another up-and-coming consultant, Russ Schriefer. The two founded a firm in 1991, now called Strategic Partners & Media, and have worked together ever since. Unlike most Republican media mavens, who used the same B-list production staffers in Washington, D.C., Stevens and Schriefer based their operation in New York City and tapped the talent of Madison Avenue.

"We found that there was a creative edge to working with someone who, the day before, was editing some national Pepsi spot or Coke spot or car spot rather than a political spot," Stevens said. "That was a huge advantage."

The pair's early work had a lively feel. An ad they produced for Tom Ridge's 1994 gubernatorial campaign featured the Republican congressman standing in a snowy shipyard in Erie, Pa. "A year ago, when I announced for governor, a Philadelphia newspaper called me 'a guy nobody's ever heard of from a city nobody's ever seen,'" the candidate said with a shrug. "Well, I'm Tom Ridge. This is Erie! Halfway between Cleveland and Buffalo."

That year, according to the Atlantic, all 12 of the candidates Stevens and Schriefer advised won their elections.

"The secret to success in politics is working for people who are going to win anyway," Stevens likes to say.

As his political profile grew, Stevens kept writing — and managed to break into television. In the early 1990s, he wrote episodes for CBS' "Northern Exposure" and the short-lived NBC series "I'll Fly Away." In 2003, he shared an office with George Clooney when the two worked together on the Beltway-based HBO series, "K Street."

"Honestly, you couldn't have hoped for a better group to learn about the inner workings of politics," Clooney told Seven Days by email. "Stuart was always the most fun."

Years later, Clooney called on his friend to help write political speeches for The Ides of March, the 2011 film set on a Democratic presidential campaign.

"I asked him to help me understand the best arguments against what the fictional candidate was pitching," Clooney said. "His insight was perfect."

Stevens has written several movies and estimates that he's sold as many as nine television pilots, including one about a fictional Florida governor and another about D.C.'s Georgetown salon scene of the 1960s. But little of his dramatic work has actually seen the light of day. "I've been very good at selling pilots — and less good at getting them on the air," he acknowledged.

Much of Stevens' art imitates his life, but sometimes life imitates his art.

The Innocent Have Nothing to Fear, his political novel about a contested Republican convention, came out last summer when the real-life convention appeared unsettled. The novel's villain, Colorado Gov. Armstrong George, is an anti-immigrant "fire-breather" who has harnessed "a burning anger at the large forces that controlled [Americans'] lives."

In one particularly resonant scene, Callahan, the Stevens-like protagonist, watches as "thirty thousand screaming, maniacal Armstrong George fanatics" chant the campaign's slogan, "America for Americans!" at a football stadium rally.

"God help us," Callahan's sidekick says. "It's 1930s Nuremberg."

Stevens maintains that he began writing the book prior to the Romney race and finished it by late 2014 — well before Trump's June 2015 campaign announcement.

"I thought to trigger something like [the rise of Armstrong George], you had to have a precipitating event, like an economic crash," he said. "Turns out I was wrong, because you had Trump."

Stevens' next project is a trilogy he's writing with actor Anson Mount about just such an economic crisis prompting a domestic insurrection.

Does he worry he might be predicting the future this time, too?

"I don't think we'll have a second American civil war," Stevens said with a nervous laugh.

'A Big-Time Flavor'

Stevens showed up at a Los Angeles doctor's office in February 2003 with a simple demand: He wanted to start a regimen of the performance-enhancing drugs he'd noticed in the cycling and skiing scenes.

Within weeks, Stevens was injecting himself with human growth hormone, testosterone, erythropoietin and anabolic steroids. Pretty soon, his eyesight was improving, his sun blotches were fading and he'd gained 12 pounds of muscle.

Ten hours into a training ride that spring, he wrote in Outside magazine, "I was tired, but I felt curiously strong, annoyingly talkative and fresh, eager to hammer the last 40 miles ... I'll be frank: It was a reassuring kind of world, and I could see why people might want to stay there."

The episode was vintage Stevens: pushing a crazy idea to its logical extreme — to prove a point and, perhaps more importantly, for the sake of a good story. (His swashbuckling oeuvre also includes a 5,500-word New York Times Magazine essay celebrating endurance sports as "pleasurable acts of violence.")

"Stuart is, you know, he's a flavor — a big-time flavor. And I'm a big fan," said political consultant Mark McKinnon, a fellow triathlete and Bush media man. "He's not everybody's cup of tea, but he's mine."

Others in the business find the flavor a touch too strong.

After former House speaker Newt Gingrich overtook Romney in a November 2011 poll, rival political operative Mike Murphy tweaked Stevens on Twitter.

"Nothing [that] more idiotic Stu Stevens preening in NYT Mag won't solve," Murphy wrote, mocking Stevens' penchant for self-referential swagger.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd lampooned Stevens as a "poseur," a "dilettante" and, worst of all, a "Hemingway manqué" whose campaign was "a moveable feast of missteps."

It is true that in a single sitting Stevens will casually mention competing in Sweden's 300-kilometer Vätternrundan cycling race and trekking to the north pole with the Norwegian explorer Børge Ousland. A chronic name-dropper, he will slip into conversation that time he went mountain biking with Bush. And he will offer, with an air of nonchalance, an interview with his "friend" Clooney.

McKinnon, a creator and star of Showtime's "The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth," argues that most criticism of Stevens amounts to nothing more than jealousy.

"Alpha males don't like to share the spotlight, and Stuart just attracts a lot of light," McKinnon said. "He also doesn't give a shit about what you think about him. It's like, 'Take it or leave it.'"

Communications consultant Joel Frushone, who met Stevens on the Ridge campaign and has cycled beside him in the Pyrenees, says his friend comes by his lifestyle honestly and unpretentiously.

"I think it's in his DNA. Some people say it's all the coffee he drinks, but I think he's wired," Frushone said. "It's a chemical imbalance that would break him down if he wasn't doing these things — and there's no bravado in any of it."

Stevens' thirst for adventure eventually led him to take on foreign clients, such as the Czech president, playwright and former dissident Václav Havel. Or, as he put it, "I did Havel."

"It was interesting," Stevens elaborated. "You'd ask him things like, 'What do you think the No. 1 goal is?' He'd think about it and say, 'Well, we must be a very moral country.' It's like, 'What the fuck does that mean? Are you going to cut taxes?'"

Some of Stevens' clients have been a little less savory. In 2004, he advised strongman Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo's first elections in decades. The next year, he helped the disgraced former Albanian president Sali Berisha rehabilitate his reputation and become prime minister.

"When we did the Congo election, we were paid by Israeli diamond merchants," Stevens boasted. "It was basically like, 'We make a lot of money in the Congo, but we can't make money if there's war. We really want to have elections that pass the Jimmy Carter smell test as much as possible, and I guess we'd like this guy Kabila to win.'"

Kabila's 2006 election was plagued by irregularities and violence, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. But according to Frushone, who worked with Stevens in Congo, everything the American political consultants did was "aboveboard."

In the years since, Kabila's government has been accused of pilfering state resources, jailing political opponents and even directing mass killings. Last December, the president ignored a constitutional mandate to step aside after two terms, delaying elections indefinitely.

Stevens insists that, whenever he has worked abroad, he has done so with the tacit support of the U.S. State Department.

"You have to have rules about this sort of stuff," he said, appearing oblivious to the ethical morass in which he'd found himself. "Otherwise, it can get very muddy."

'A Very Personal Question'

click to enlarge Stuart Stevens learning  Krav Maga from Ernie Roick - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Stuart Stevens learning Krav Maga from Ernie Roick

After an hour of hiking, Stevens reached the junction of Owl's Howl and Cabin Trail. The terrain had become steeper and his limp more pronounced. "God. My knee just gets bad," the aging adventurer said with a grimace. "We should probably turn around."

For Stevens, as his Krav Maga instructor had suggested, the challenge ahead was not the mountain but the pebble in his shoe.

In The Last Season, his memoir, Stevens meditated on the emotions he'd encountered after losing the Romney race. Earlier in his career, he wrote, winning campaigns had made him happy.

"Over time, that slowly changed to the point where winning was the absence of pain more than some form of joy," he observed. "What hadn't changed was the horrible self-loathing that came with losing. It wasn't abstract or remote but a depressing, long-lasting sort of funk when no food tasted good, and the best days were still lousy ones."

That pain was made worse in 2012 by the number of people — inside the campaign and out — who blamed Stevens for Romney's loss. The chief strategist had determined from the start to make the election a referendum on president Barack Obama's handling of the economy. But Stevens' critics said he failed to humanize Romney and convince voters to like him.

Schriefer, his longtime business partner, disagreed with that assessment

"At a time when unemployment was high and the economy was in the doldrums, I still believe it was the best contrast we had with Barack Obama," he maintained.

Others saw Stevens as a power-hungry micromanager.

In the weeks before the Republican convention, the campaign commissioned and then jettisoned multiple versions of Romney's primetime address written by three veteran speechwriters. In the end, he delivered a version cobbled together at the last minute by Stevens and the candidate himself.

According to Politico, the episode exposed the campaign's "fundamental design flaw" — that Stevens was doing the work of what should have been three top staffers: chief strategist, chief ad maker and chief speechwriter.

Romney dismissed the criticism.

"The only person beside myself who could write a speech I would like was Stuart," he said. "Stuart had a large portfolio because I needed him to."

Stevens took responsibility for the loss, but he also pointed to factors outside of his control. Chief among them, he argued, was the tremendous cash advantage Obama gained by opting out of public financing and avoiding a Democratic primary — allowing for an early ad blitz that defined Romney as a soulless capitalist.

According to Frushone, the Romney race "hurt Stuart the most of any of the campaigns he has lost, and I think it changed him as a person, too."

Stevens' evolution is evident. He no longer characterizes himself as a heartless mercenary who will work for anybody. "I don't have positions," he used to enjoy saying. "I have clients."

In the age of Trump, Stevens is starting to articulate an ideology.

"I think the vision of having a center-right, compassionate governing party that is united by more optimism and kindness is something that's just missing from where we are today," he said as he descended through the early autumnal forest. "I think any politics that comes out of mean-spiritedness is flawed."

But, wait. Was this not the man who, a week earlier, had been celebrating the fight as "the best thing about politics"? The man who had spent a lifetime practicing political retzev?

"Yeah, I mean, I've said this before: I probably represent the worst of the American political system. You know, I mean, I'm a hired gun — this weird aberration of our modern political system," he acknowledged. "But I always look at it like litigating for a client. You go out and fight as hard as you can."

It seemed as if Stevens was trying to have it both ways.

"You ever see that great film Lifeguard, by Daniel Petrie?" he asked, referring to the 1976 movie about an aging lifeguard who doesn't know when to hang up the rescue tube. "At a certain point, you just kind of become, like, there's something wrong with this guy."

Is that true of political consultants, too? Does there come a time when they should put the fight behind them?

"I think that's a very personal question," Stevens said, dodging it.

The trail ended in a clearing with a view of the Green Mountains, flecked with red, orange and yellow leaves. Stevens walked to his black Volvo SUV.

Asked whether he would consider another presidential campaign or if such feats were behind him, Stevens said he would have to be "just all in" if he were to commit. (His firm has taken on several 2018 gubernatorial and Senate races.)

"It's beyond 24-7," he said of a run for the White House. "So I could see doing it, if there was someone that, you know, I thought was important and cared about."

The fighter, it seemed, wasn't quite ready to walk away.


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Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Bio:
Paul Heintz is a staff writer and political editor for Seven Days. He wrote the "Fair Game" political column from May 2012 through December 2016.

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