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09.25.10

A Political Love Affair

Meg Whitman and Mitt Romney’s friendship goes back to their days at Bain, but it’s also making them a formidable political team that may change the 2012 presidential game.

Last summer, Meg Whitman traveled to Boston to visit her mother and during that trip she made a detour north to Mitt Romney’s home on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. She had launched a gubernatorial exploratory committee, but hadn’t officially thrown her hat into the ring in the race to be California’s governor. She wanted some advice from her old friend, mentor, and boss Romney. He had already backed her that April, that wasn’t a question, but she wanted some counsel from Romney and his wife, Ann, before returning to California and officially launching her bid a few weeks later in September.

Romney was actually the first to suggest to Whitman that she should run for governor of California.

“He certainly encouraged her in considering it and thinking about it,” says an adviser to Romney’s primary campaign and current aide to Whitman. “It was obviously a path he had taken to the state house so it’s probably a natural thing for him to try and encourage her towards. She speaks directly of his influence in her thinking and even considering this in the first place.”

Most political alliances are based in, well, politics, but there are a few relationships that do seem born out of true friendships. Mitt Romney and Meg Whitman have backed each other and she criss-crossed the country in his failed bid to be the GOP nominee to John McCain. At that point, she was merely the CEO of eBay, a very wealthy and accomplished businesswoman, but had yet to forge her own political career.

It wasn’t until she jumped on the trail with Romney that she seriously thought about getting into politics.

Tucker Bounds, Whitman’s campaign manager relays a joke she says about her friend’s advice, “Mitt Romney has inspired her to get into the race and to public service and on the good days she is so thankful he encouraged her and on the bad days he’s the first one she blames.”

Their relationship started in 1981 when Whitman went to work at the Romney co-founded management consulting firm, Bain & Co. She was a consultant and senior vice president and it was Romney who did the recruiting in those days. He actually interviewed her and it’s a story he likes to share when boasting about his former employee.

A campaign staffer for Romney and current Whitman aide recalls the story, “When he was interviewing Meg at Bain...they pride themselves on really putting the interviewee through a very difficult situation and making them rock back on their heels a little bit and Romney told this story ...when Meg came in...halfway through the interview he realized he was the one back on his heels and she was interviewing him.”

The culture of Bain & Company and what they both took from their time there (Romney went on to found Bain Capital, a private equity investment firm in 1984) has profoundly affected both Romney and Whitman and clearly shaped their campaigns. Bain employees from that time say a lot of the companies they dealt with were trying to solve problems with their subjective opinions and Bain would come in and take a look at the facts.

As candidates, both Romney and Whitman are the same today. Advisors to both say they are supremely analytical people. Before making decisions that other politicians may rush into they tend to surround themselves with people who know both sides of an issue. Romney has come under fire this cycle for waiting to endorse candidates other party leaders backed weeks and at times months before.

“Mitt is still really glad to be there with his very good friend Meg and Meg is delighted and energized when Mitt is with her on the campaign, especially in private.”

“He wanted to know everything before making a decision and listen to both sides so he could make the most informed decision possible. Meg is very much the same way,” said the staffer to both who currently works for Whitman. “I hear more than once a day, ‘What’s the right thing to do here?’”

Matthew Yglesias: Get Off Your Butts, DemsMuch like Whitman’s meeting with Romney in New Hampshire when she was contemplating her run, he traveled to California when he decided to make a run for the White House in 2007. Romney met Whitman at eBay and she immediately pledged her support saying that she would help in anyway she could.

Although her experience with political fundraising was limited, she opened her Rolodex for him. “I’ve gone through this list of people that I think are like-minded and would be able to help,” she said, according to an advisor to both with knowledge of the meeting.

“I haven’t raised a lot of money, but I really believe in Mitt.”

She became national finance co-chair of his campaign and raised $12 million  for him. Romney campaign staffers from that time say she would call constantly asking what else she could do.

“She really enjoys the measure of it all. The competitiveness of it all. The metric is very discernable. You either raise X amount of money or you don’t,” says Rob Stutzman, who has advised both and worked on both campaigns.

Advisors and friends say they are in frequent phone and e-mail contact. Romney campaigned for her during the primary and advisors say she consults with him on policy issues. If Whitman does win she will be facing a legislature run by another party, something Romney dealt with when he was the governor of Massachusetts. He often touts how much he was able to get done despite an opposition legislature and talks with Whitman about what she can expect if she makes it to Sacramento.

Over and over in discussions with advisors they all bring up the difference between their friendship and the usual surrogate who parachutes in for an event.

“To me the deep personal friendship is obvious in their interactions,” says Stutzman. “Let me put it this way I’ve seen plenty of surrogates or people show up to campaign with somebody and it’s one thing behind closed doors and you walk out and you throw the switch on and they are glad to be their with their best friend so and so, but behind closed doors you can tell Mitt is still really glad to be there with his very good friend Meg and Meg is delighted and energized when Mitt is with her on the campaign, especially in private. Just his presence is a boost for her.”

And Whitman used Romney’s star power with the state GOP stalwarts when she first got into the race. Romney accompanied her to the state Republican Party convention and stayed by her side the entire day.

“The party faithful are being introduced to her, it was very important to have this clear association and support from Romney because whether people supported him or not in the eyes of many activists or party faithful he’s seen as a standard bearer and possibly presumptive nominee. I mean with all due respect to Mike Huckabee everyone sees Mitt Romney as finishing second,” says a mutual advisor to both.

When Romney did end his primary run, McCain went to him and asked for supporters who had been helpful. Romney mentioned Whitman and she became a co-chair of the McCain campaign.

In her book, she writes about how she believed McCain should have chosen Romney as his number two.

“When it came time to choose a running mate, for example, I believed that the times called for the skills of Mitt Romney, because he would have complemented John’s inspirational leadership with the practical experience of having managed large and complex organizations, both in business and as a governor,” Whitman writes of her friend.

Another thing the duo has in common: cash and lots of it. They have both come under criticism for funding their own campaigns with their personal fortunes. Romney gave $42.3 million to his primary campaign. And Whitman is now the most expensive self-funded candidate in history shelling out $119 million of her own money in her run against former California governor Jerry Brown.

Despite the cash, a recent Rasmussen Reports poll found Brown leading Whitman 47 percent to 46 percent among likely voters and also leads in the most recent Public Policy Polling where Brown bested Whitman 47 to 42, among likely voters.

Although Romney may want Whitman to take the statehouse because of their friendship it’s clear that an ally in California come 2012 would be very helpful to him ahead of another likely attempt at the presidency.

Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.