S.J. native Kellyanne Conway getting credit for helping steer Trump to the White House

3 x 2 kellyanne conway with trump
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway greet supporters during his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 9, 2016.

Donald Trump may have won the presidency in part because he took the advice of a powerful woman.

Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, a South Jersey native, last week became the first woman to manage a successful U.S. presidential campaign, toppling a notable gender barrier, albeit smaller than the one Democrat Hillary Clinton sought to break.

Many GOP politicos credit Conway as a kind of Trump Tamer, helping the freewheeling real estate developer to convey his antiestablishment message in a more succinct and disciplined way during the final weeks of the campaign.

"I saw her touch in everything that went on," said Robert Prunetti, who hired Conway as a pollster and senior adviser to his 1999 reelection campaign as Mercer County executive. "When he was on message and staying on message, it was clear to me that she was influencing him. I'd say, 'That's Kellyanne.' She was always hammering at the need to stay on message."

Prunetti said he had no insider information that Conway was the cause of Trump's tactical adjustments but thought he recognized her approach in certain phrases and tones the candidate used.

That 1999 campaign centered partly on the Prunetti administration's efforts to spur Trenton redevelopment, such as building a minor-league baseball stadium, a sports arena, and new libraries in the city. He believes that record and outreach to Reagan Democrats and African American voters helped win the race.

"I think she's brilliant," Prunetti said. "She has a real ability to distill data and find the opportunities."

Conway, 49, grew up in Atco, on the eastern edge of Camden County. Kellyanne Fitzpatrick was raised by a single mother, who worked at the Claridge casino in Atlantic City, in a house shared with her grandmother and an aunt. Conway became valedictorian of the 1985 class at St. Joseph's High School in Hammonton, worked for eight summers on a blueberry farm, and won the New Jersey Blueberry Princess pageant, as well as the title for fastest blueberry packer in a competition.

Conway graduated from Trinity College in Washington and then earned a law degree from George Washington University. She and her husband, New York litigator George T. Conway III, have four young children and live in Alpine, a wealthy enclave in Bergen County.

While finishing law school, Conway was a research assistant for the polling firm of Richard Wirthlin, which did surveys for Ronald Reagan. She later worked for uber-pollster Frank Luntz and started her own firm, Polling Inc., in 1995. Conway became known for helping conservative Republicans reach female voters and advising corporations on marketing to women.

Among her biggest-name political clients: Newt Gingrich, former House speaker; Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana who now is vice president-elect; Dan Quayle, former vice president; and 2012 Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, who infamously said he would oppose a rape exception to an abortion ban because women's bodies could avoid fertilization of an egg in cases of "legitimate rape."

The Trump campaign did not respond to requests to interview Conway for this story. She told the New Yorker last month she did not dwell on her pathbreaking role.

"I've been in a very male-dominated business for decades," Conway told the New Yorker. "I found, particularly early on, that there's plenty of room for passion, but there's very little room for emotion." She added, "I tell people all the time, 'Don't be fooled, because I am a man by day.' "

Earlier in this election cycle, Conway was the head of a super PAC supporting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for the Republican nomination, an effort funded by hedge fund founder Robert Mercer. When Cruz dropped out of the race in May, Conway followed Mercer to the Trump team, working for the super PAC called Defeat Crooked Hillary. In June, she was hired by Trump's campaign as an adviser on the "gender gap."

Trump had some challenges in that area, to say the least. He called entertainer Rosie O'Donnell "disgusting" with a "fat pig face." He also went with the porcine metaphor when he attacked a winner of the Miss Universe pageant, which he owned, as an "eating machine." Complaining about tough questions in a GOP debate, Trump said Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had "blood coming out of her wherever."

And then, of course, there was the surfacing of the Access Hollywood tape from 2005, with Trump boasting of grabbing women by the genitals and forcing himself on them with ambush kisses. A dozen women came forward to accuse him of assault, and the Clinton campaign portrayed Trump as a sexist in millions of dollars worth of ads in an effort to make him toxic to women voters.

As the tape gained momentum, Conway did not try to defend the indefensible. She called Trump's language "offensive and disgusting" and pivoted to his character. "This is a man I have been alone with many times who has never been anything but gracious and a gentleman," she said on CNN. She added, "He elevated me to the top level of his campaign organization the way he has elevated women in the Trump Organization - because he respects women."

With controversy after controversy, Conway jumped into the bear pit of live TV interviews and deflected questions calmly, returning to campaign themes. It was hard to rattle her.

"She's the best advocate because she knows the words to use, and what she says resonates," Luntz said. "Most strategists sound inauthentic or phony, but Kellyanne's real."

Nationally, Trump bested Clinton 53 percent to 43 percent among white women overall, according to exit polls conducted for a consortium of media outlets. He won white women without college degrees by a 2-1 ratio. It is hard to tie that performance directly to Conway; analysts believe Trump's late-campaign emphasis on pocketbook issues such as trade and health-insurance costs helped him overcome the unease of some female voters.

Republican insiders say that Conway, who has known Trump for years, earned the mogul's trust. She also is said to be on good terms with the Trump family, viewed as the true power center of the campaign, including Jared Kushner, who is married to daughter Ivanka Trump. Other advisers to the candidate and GOP critics have said her role has been overstated, saying she spent too much time as a surrogate on TV.

But to Republican media consultant John Brabender, who has worked on campaigns with Conway since 1996 and is a fellow adviser to Pence, that was exactly what made her a double-threat asset for Trump.

"Most important, I think, is that she didn't turn into a traditional campaign manager; they don't talk to the press," Brabender said. "She could add coloring to what he was saying, put it into context. She was, aside from Trump himself, the 'brand' person. It was uncharted territory, even for her. It couldn't have been done better."

Conway was an effective advocate without coming across as harsh or hostile, Brabender said.

She may be working on a larger stage soon. Conway tweeted last week she has been offered a White House job but won't elaborate. Speculation has centered on communications director or press secretary.

"She stands her ground, stays cool and on point," Prunetti said. He attributes that skill to a special characteristic. "She's a Jersey Girl, what else?" he said.

tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

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@tomfitzgerald