Salena Zito

Stuart Stevens is not that complicated.

People so often describe the man in charge of shaping Mitt Romney's image, message and campaign strategy as unconventional, quirky or offbeat that you might expect his former clients to do the same.

"That is not the case at all," said former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. Stevens, he said, has a knack for understanding who a candidate is and what voters are thinking about.

People mistake his keen listening skill and ability to look past daily minutiae as eccentricity, Ridge said. "Listening is a gift," he said. "So is seeing beyond the daily bumps in the road and not panicking. I consider that his strengths, not a quirk."

Before 24-hour cable newscasts and social media platforms such as YouTube and Twitter, the general public rarely saw political strategists who crafted messages, crunched numbers and calculated electoral maps for presidential candidates, let alone knew their names or recognized their faces.

Today, James Carville and Dick Morris, the masterminds of Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns, and Karl Rove, the man behind George W. Bush, are recognizable figures in many households. And although President Obama's chief campaign adviser, David Axelrod, the rumpled Chicago native with kind eyes and a sharp tongue, is a staple on Sunday news shows and cable TV programs, the man behind the inevitable Republican nominee remains in the background.

A native of Jackson, Miss., Stevens, 58, grew up in a Democratic household in a town and state dominated by Democrats. The Republican Party, he says, inexplicably drew him in.

"They were the thinkers, they were talking about people, about individuals," he says.

Understands the voters

Stevens' love of politics began with a home state congressional race that his candidate won. His career blossomed in 1982 when former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour lost a U.S. Senate campaign Stevens designed against a popular Democrat.

"Everything I have ever learned about winning comes from losing," Stevens says. "Especially in that race. We went up against a good man for a pretty specific reason -- he had been in Washington for too long. We made some good points; we made mistakes. I take those lessons into every campaign I have worked on."

Barbour admires Stevens to this day, though he lost the race against the late Sen. John Cornelius Stennis by nearly 20 percentage points.

"Stuart's good people," Barbour says. "He has a fine work ethic and a brilliant mind that truly understands the needs and concerns of the voters."

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.