Washington (CNN) -- It was 2002, and things weren't going well for Mitt Romney, then a candidate for Massachusetts governor.
A series of commercials depicting him working blue-collar jobs baling hay and frolicking shirtless with his wife on the beach bombed with voters and hurt him in the contest against Democratic state Treasurer Shannon O'Brian.
Then, Eric Fehrnstrom, at the time a high-level Romney campaign staffer, came up with an idea.
The Democrats "put out this thing about how Romney has no economic plan for Massachusetts. ... It was like 200 pages, and they were going to carry it over to our campaign. All of these reporters were going to be there," said Ben Coes, a veteran politico-turned-popular political thriller writer who headed Romney's 2002 election campaign.
"We had five to 10 minutes to prepare. Eric got this big smile on his face. He had someone, a young intern high school student working there, make up signs with arrows that said 'recycle stale old ideas here,' and we taped them to the recycling cans."
When his opponent's campaign team arrived, the intended delivery went straight into the recycling bin.
Those close to Romney say that's exactly the type of scrappy, quick-witted response in defense of his boss that makes Fehrnstrom, a top-level adviser, such an asset to the campaign.
Pundits buzzed this week when Fehrnstrom said in an interview on MSNBC that Romney believes the so-called individual mandate in President Obama's health care reform law is no tax.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that the mandate is constitutional under Congress' taxing power.
"He agreed with the dissent written by Justice (Antonin) Scalia, which very clearly stated that the mandate was not a tax," Fehrnstrom said.
The Romney campaign says Fehrnstrom is a key member of the governor's inner circle.
"Eric is well-respected inside the campaign and is one of the people the governor turns to for advice," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.
The statement on the individual mandate would seem to put Romney out of step with fellow Republicans, who, since shortly after the Supreme Court's announcement, have hammered the idea that the mandate is a tax.
Was this another "Etch-A-Sketch" moment, when Fehrnstrom suggested on CNN during the March primaries that the Romney campaign could change its tone and "shake it up and restart all over again" closer to the general election?
Or was this a shrewd move to assuage worried moderates and independents and draw fire away from Romney?
Signs, political experts say, point to the latter.
"It's still kind of ham-handed, but it served a strategic purpose," said Trevor Parry-Giles, a political communication professor at the University of Maryland. "What (Romney) has to confront is that he did the exact same thing in Massachusetts. And that he's not as hard-nosed and doctrinaire as he sounds. He's trapped in this weird realm where he has to appeal to the base but still attract the center. ... Health care is a particularly thorny issue."
And that's where Fehrnstrom comes in.
"Fehrnstrom may have made the one enormous gaffe on the 'Etch-a-Sketch' front in the past, but he is a professional. He is not going to go off-message without a lot of discussion inside the campaign on how they wanted to handle it," said Norm Ornstein, a veteran political analyst and author of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism." "The role of a spokesman is, you can become a lightning rod. You give your boss some distance."
Fehrnstrom certainly knows how to shock.
This is the guy, after all, who created the satirical Twitter account @CrazyKhazei and poked fun at Democrat Alan Khazei's Massachusetts primary bid to face Republican Sen. Scott Brown, saying the challenger spends his time "making gay videos." The tweet by Fehrnstrom, who is also Brown's campaign spokesman, was a reference to the "It Gets Better" campaign to help prevent gay teen suicide.
Fehrnstrom, a former journalist with the Boston Herald, has been with the Romney campaign for a decade, a role he took on the day he threw in the towel while writing a news release for Popeye's Fried Chicken's spicy menu.
Since then, he's famously defended his boss with sharp quips and sharp elbows.
"He brings a toughness, a Boston street smarts mentality, a back-alley edge in a good sense ... a 'if you throw sand at me, I'm going to hit you in the nose' sense," Coes said. "Mitt's not that way. It's one of the most wonderful traits about Mitt. He's just a remarkably kind man. He's kind of like Ronald Reagan in that sense. ... If you are a truly kind person, you need people around you with sharp elbows and people who can carve out a path for you in the woods."