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As Mike Murphy Turns

After betting--and then doubling down--that Mike Murphy would not be joining the McCain campaign, I reached for my wallet yesterday morning when I saw that Bill Kristol was predicting Murphy's imminent arrival in McCainland. Kristol's column, combined with rumors I've heard that McCain actually offered Murphy the top strategist job last week right before the announcement of Steve Schmidt's promotion, definitely suggest something is afoot. Let's just say I'm still skeptical that Murphy will be back--although not nearly as skeptical as I was a few days ago.

Murphy, who was the media consultant for McCain's 2000 campaign, is a unique figure in the world of McCain advisors. Although McCainland was long split between the warring Rick Davis and John Weaver factions, Murphy was never really a member of either camp. He's basically been a tribe unto himself. Kristol speculated that Murphy's joining McCain '08 would cause some turmoil because "the current McCain campaign is chock full of G.O.P. establishment types, many of whom aren’t great fans of the irreverent Murphy." But it's not just the Rove disciples in McCainland--now known as the Schmidt camp--who dislike Murphy. A lot of the people who worked with Murphy on the McCain 2000 Campaign don't like him, either: They chafed at his irreverence during the campaign and then they got really pissed when the race was over and they discovered that Murphy had been cooperating with the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz for a big article about McCain's run. Indeed, the joke in McCainland is that, after 2000, the only person Davis disliked more than Murphy was Weaver. As one Republican strategist with knowledge of the situation told me, "The crew that was there in 2000 can't stand him."

The McCain campaign is pushing back against Kristol's column and other talk of Murphy's return. "No one discussed or offered Mike the strategist's job," a McCain advisor told me yesterday afternoon. "Mike is a friend of the senator's, but he is not joining the campaign, and neither the candidate nor his campaign are responsible for any press speculation suggesting otherwise." The Republican strategist with knowledge of the situation elaborated: "There's no one in the senior leadership of the campaign who wants Murphy there. Schmidt has pushed back very hard against Murphy being there." 

But there is, of course, one other member of the Murphy tribe in addition to Murphy--and that's McCain himself. As the Republican strategist puts it: "McCain likes Murphy and talks to him. I imagine he'll continue to do so and that it will continue to be a problem within the campaign." One big reason it will be a problem is because McCain will oftentimes be talking to Murphy behind his other advisors' backs. "McCain talks to people, former advisors or in some cases advisors who were fired, without the other advisors knowing about it," a former McCain advisor told me.

And, indeed, it was apparently in one such surreptitious conversation that McCain offered Murphy the strategist's job. "Before he left for Mexico and Colombia, McCain informed Murphy that when he returned, there would be changes in the campaign, that Davis would be demoted and that Schmidt would assume some operational control of the campaign, and that he wanted Murphy to serve as his chief strategist, as he currently didn't have one," a friend of McCain's told me. "Murphy didn't say no," the McCain friend went on. "Murphy expected that to happen." When I asked why it didn't, the McCain friend replied: "As usual, chaos took over." 

So could it still happen? The Republican strategist is of two minds: "I think it will take some other significant negative event for McCain to do this. I think everybody inside the campaign has pretty much strongly said where they are on this, and it'd be hard for Murphy to come in without causing a major disruption. The campaign would have to continue on its downward course for McCain to go in that direction. But even then, I'm not sure whether, at this late stage, the campaign can withstand another big changeup. It could lead to even bigger problems that are insurmountable." 

Of course, McCain himself could take control of the situation by calling all of his competing advisors together and ordering them to get along and cooperate with one another. But that would be a dramatic break with past practice. As the former McCain advisor puts it, "McCain's style is, call everyone into a room, say you guys work it out, and then turn off the lights. And then throw in a knife." It seems that the question going forward for Murphy--or anyone, for that matter, who wants to run the McCain campaign--is whether he can grab that knife before somebody else does.

--Jason Zengerle