Fresh Off McCain Bus, G.O.P.’s Mike Murphy Rides Senate Campaign

Not long after Rick Lazio officially took his place as the Republican Party’s nominee for U.S. Senate, members of Governor Pataki’s brain trust aligned themselves along the uppermost bleacher of the Buffalo Bisons’ baseball stadium, looking down on a parking-lot rally that featured the unveiling of the Lazio campaign bus, the “Mainstream Express.”

As rays of warm evening sun bore down, and the smell of hot dogs cooked just a bit too long wafted through the air, the Governor smiled as a black curtain dropped from the bus to the insistent drumming of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” Off to the side, at the end of a long line of top Republican officeholders, stood Governor Pataki’s communications director, Zenia Mucha, tilting her carefully coiffed blond head and sharing a laugh with Michael Murphy, Mr. Lazio’s media adviser.

The image resembled a wedding photo at a second marriage. Because Mr. Murphy is a newcomer to this team, usurping the role played by another young Irish-American political strategist with a flair for negative campaigning-Kieran Mahoney. Along with über consultant Arthur Finkelstein, Mr. Mahoney has owned the New York electoral franchise for a decade, working on virtually every statewide Republican race. Except Rick Lazio’s U.S. Senate campaign.

The emergence of Mr. Murphy as Mr. Lazio’s main man marks what one political insider called a “paradigm shift” in state Republican politics. Gone, apparently, are the tactics and strategies most associated with Mr. Mahoney and his mentor, Mr. Finkelstein. Both won great success in painting New York Democrats as demonic liberals during the 1990’s. While Mr. Lazio’s campaign is barely a month old, it seems clear that Mr. Murphy does indeed have another paradigm in mind as he and his candidate take on the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mr. Murphy, a veteran of John McCain’s presidential campaign, is positioning Mr. Lazio as an independent-minded quasi maverick rather than a liberal-baiting ideologue.

Mr. Murphy diplomatically downplayed what other Republicans are calling a “changing of the guard of the elite New York consultants.” Over diet soda and smoked almonds in the Four Seasons’ lobby lounge, he insisted that he was a logical choice to run Mr. Lazio’s campaign. “I’ve known Rick,” he said. “I’ve given him advice. I do a lot of statewide campaigns. I’ve won 18 Senate and governor’s races in big important states.”

Mr. Mahoney, for his part, sang the praises of the man some believe has replaced him as the state’s go-to Republican consultant. “He’s a smart guy, and there are probably, in my estimation, [only] half a dozen smart guys in the business,” Mr. Mahoney said. And if Mr. Mahoney is upset about his non-role in what still promises to be one of the nation’s most-watched campaigns, he isn’t showing it. In fact, the veteran of countless campaigns sounds as though politics no longer has first claim on his loyalties. “You know what?,” he said, “I’ve done a lot of really exciting races. They have meetings at 11 at night and require you to get on planes at 6:30 in the morning. I have a kid, 2 years, five months, and the second is coming in four weeks. I’m 42 years old. In 1994,”-the year he helped mastermind George Pataki’s upset victory over Mario Cuomo-“I logged 700,000 frequent-flyer miles, and stayed in Marriott hotels 209 nights. I don’t need to be a platinum member of every frequent-flyer club at this stage in my life.”

Apparently Mr. Murphy is undergoing a similar change-of-life experience, although he presumably is prepared for lots of 11 p.m. meetings and 6:30 a.m. flights over the next six months. During an interview with The Observer , he all but vowed that the Lazio race would be his last campaign. “I don’t want to spend the next 10 years doing this,” Mr. Murphy said. “I want to retire to the corporate world. I want to get married.” Mr. Murphy, who turned 38 on June 5, wouldn’t discuss his personal life, except to say he was “a single, hetero, boring Irish guy from Detroit.”

Talk of the Town

Behind the scenes, Republicans aren’t necessarily buying into the notion that Mr. Mahoney no longer is passionate about the political chase. They’re still gossiping about Mr. Murphy’s emergence on Mr. Mahoney’s turf. “It is the talk of the Republican party,” said Frank Luntz, a G.O.P. pollster. The choice of Mr. Murphy is especially interesting in light of the fact that Mr. Lazio has taken on the entire George Pataki-Alfonse D’Amato fund-raising operation. Until now, political insiders would have expected Mr. Mahoney to be a part of any campaign package that includes so many other parts of the Pataki-D’Amato machine.

Adding to the perception of intrigue is Mr. Murphy’s former role as Mr. McCain’s top consultant during the Arizona Senator’s wild presidential campaign. Mr. Murphy had nothing good to say about the state’s Republican establishment, including state G.O.P. chairman William Powers, when Mr. McCain was trying to get on the presidential primary ballot in New York. With top Republicans lined up behind Texas Governor George W. Bush, the state G.O.P. organization tried to block Mr. McCain from appearing on the primary ballot, a strategy that played into the hands of Mr. Murphy, who played up Mr. McCain’s maverick appearance. Suggesting that New York Republicans had as much respect for democracy as the Communists of old, Mr. Murphy cheerfully referred to the Governor and the Republican Chairman as “Comrade Pataki” and “Comrade Powers,” and staged a press conference in front of the Russian embassy. Mr. Murphy now says he likes and admires Mr. Pataki. But does Mr. Powers have any hard feelings about Mr. Murphy? “Naaah.” Mr. Powers said. “No hard feelings for Comrade Murphy.”

Several well-placed Republican sources insist that Mr. Pataki asked Mr. Lazio to hire Mr. Mahoney and Mr. Finkelstein after Mayor Giuliani dropped out of the race. “I find that hard to believe,” Mr. Mahoney said, “because the Governor and I have discussed my mind-set and he knows I would probably be disinterested. I hear those rumors, too, but I haven’t talked to Mr. Lazio in a year, haven’t talked to his campaign, wasn’t interested in pitching it and certainly authorized no one to pitch it for me and never considered myself in the mix or wanting to get in.”

Mike’s World

A self-proclaimed lover of rock ‘n’ roll with thick black-rimmed glasses and longish blond hair, Mr. Murphy would be at home in the cast of Wayne’s World . (The tough-talking Mr. Mahoney, on the other hand, resembles John Spencer, the chief of staff in the television series The West Wing .) Mr. Murphy began his life as a political consultant while he was a 19-year-old Georgetown University student writing radio commercials for the National Conservative Political Action Committee when it was controlled by Mr. Finkelstein.

While Mr. Murphy is something of a stranger to New York politics, he is no newcomer to high-stakes races. He worked on Oliver North’s doomed Senate campaign in Virginia several years ago, and was called “The G.O.P.’s Negative Force” in a Washington Post headline. The North campaign featured a commercial that sought to link incumbent Senator Charles Robb to “cocaine parties” and a “beauty queen in a hotel room.” Mr. Murphy also has worked in more decorous campaigns, including that of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. He just makes a beeline for high-profile races, G.O.P. sources say.

“Mike Murphy is a campaign strategist who understands how to get inside the head of the candidate and how to get the best out of them, and it’s why he’s very effective at getting the hottest races,” said consultant Rick Wilson, who worked on Mayor Giuliani’s media team.