Murdoch’s Digs at Romney Underscore Persistent Strains

Keith Bedford/Reuters

Rupert Murdoch, chief executive and chairman of News Corp, has critiqued Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

Mr. Murdoch’s thoughts on the Republican presidential candidate’s prospects? “Tough O Chicago pros will be hard to beat unless he drops old friends from the team.” Chances of that? “Doubtful,” he tapped out in a Twitter message from his iPad last weekend.

Then, on Thursday, Mr. Murdoch’s flagship newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, published a blistering editorial criticizing Mr. Romney’s campaign, accusing it of being hapless and looking “confused in addition to being politically dumb.”

Mr. Murdoch has never been particularly impressed with Mr. Romney, friends and associates of both men say. The two times Mr. Romney visited the editorial board of The Journal, Mr. Murdoch did not work very hard to conceal his lack of excitement. “There was zero enthusiasm, no engagement,” said one Journal staff member who was at the most recent meeting in December.

The editorial was a stern reminder of Mr. Romney’s failure to win the trust of the Republican Party’s core conservatives, a group that pays close attention to Mr. Murdoch’s newspapers and cable news outlets. Though political strategists debate the ultimate impact of any single media outlet, what is written in the pages of The Journal and The New York Post and talked about on Fox News — all Murdoch properties — could have the collective power to shape the thinking of millions of voters.

Mr. Murdoch’s dim view of Mr. Romney points to a palpable disconnect between the two men, one that has existed since Mr. Romney’s first run for president four years ago, people who know them both said. More than a half-dozen friends and advisers to the two, speaking mostly anonymously to reveal private and frank conversations, said the Murdoch-Romney relationship could be summed up simply: They do not have much of one.

They have met only a handful of times. Their lukewarm feelings toward each other stem from their encounter at a meeting of The Journal editorial board in 2007, when Mr. Romney visited to pitch himself as the most capable conservative candidate about two months before the Iowa caucuses.

Romney and Journal staff members who attended said that despite being deeply prepared and animated — particularly on his love for data crunching — Mr. Romney failed to connect with either Mr. Murdoch or The Journal’s editorial page editor, Paul A. Gigot. Instead of articulating a clear and consistent conservative philosophy, he dwelled on organizational charts and executive management, areas of expertise that made him a multimillionaire as the head of his private equity firm, Bain Capital.

At one point, Mr. Romney declared that “I would probably bring in McKinsey,” the management consulting firm, to help him set up his presidential cabinet, a comment that seemed to startle the editors and left Mr. Murdoch visibly taken aback.

The Journal’s write-up of that meeting would later glibly refer to Mr. Romney as “Consultant in Chief.”

Mr. Romney followed up later in the campaign with a second meeting in Mr. Murdoch’s office, but that, too, failed to light a spark. “I don’t think he ever got excited about Romney,” said one associate of Mr. Murdoch’s.

By the time the first Republican primaries of 2012 were closing in, Mr. Romney met again with The Journal’s editorial board. Mr. Murdoch sat in. “America doesn’t need a manager. America needs a leader,” Mr. Romney told the board. He wore a suit, which he changed out of for a more casual appearance on David Letterman’s show that evening. And at one point, according to a Journal staff member, he said lightheartedly, “I hope I’m getting better at this.”

The Romney campaign felt the meeting went well — so well that it was surprised when The Journal kept hammering him, reprising its complaints about his “inability, or unwillingness, to defend conservative principles.”

Fundamentally, Mr. Romney and Mr. Murdoch are very different. Mr. Romney is said to respect Mr. Murdoch as a visionary business mind and deeply admire how he built the company he inherited from his father into a $60 billion global media power. But a teetotaling Mormon from the Midwest and a thrice-married Australian who publishes photos of topless women in one of his British newspapers are bound to have very different world views.

Mr. Murdoch’s wariness about Mr. Romney is similar to the way many Republican primary voters initially felt about the candidate. Mr. Murdoch wanted anybody else, and could not resist getting swept up in the flavor-of-the-week fickleness that characterized this year’s Republican nominating process. He wrote glowing Twitter messages about Rick Santorum, calling him the only candidate with a “genuine big vision” for the country.