Twenty-four hours before Election Day, the man at the front of the plane remains a mystery.
“I need your vote. I need your work,” Mitt Romney implored enthusiastic supporters from Florida to New Hampshire. “Walk with me. Walk with me together,” he said, while standing perfectly straight, an eye on the teleprompter, staying precisely on script.
Yet, with more than a decade of national exposure, hundreds of thousands of ads and life without private moments, Romney has remained largely inscrutable. To voters, the journalists traveling with him for almost two years and even some of his staff, the Republican nominee has revealed little beyond his campaign-crafted images as a business technocrat and family man. Should he lose his bid for the White House tonight, friends and supporters say, that opacity may be among the reasons.
“What a lot of people probably miss is just how personable and fun he is,” South Dakota Senator John Thune, a long-time Romney backer, said at a rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Oct. 3. “When you get a chance to see him up close and personal, he’s just a really down-to-earth and warm.”
In another election season, Romney’s reserve may have been more of a drag. The 2012 race is as much a referendum on President Barack Obama and a troubled economy as it is a choice for Romney. Aides say their campaign’s message is as much about the moment as it is the man.
Yet Romney’s first debate performance on Oct. 3 provided a breakthrough opportunity, improving his image enough with voters to see his favorability rating go from 37 percent in July to 50 percent in an Oct. 29 Pew Research Center poll.
On the road after the showdown, Romney offered a more confident presence, casting his candidacy as a movement that would change the course of history.
“Obama’s campaign is slipping and shrinking,” Romney told voters in Reno on Oct. 24. “Our campaign is a growing movement across this country, where people recognize we’re going to build a brighter future.”
Seeking to protect his momentum in the final weeks of the campaign, Romney avoided the press altogether. His last press conference was on Sept. 28. An Oct. 10 interview with the Columbus Dispatch editorial board was the last time he spoke to a print publication.
That decision closed off the final opportunity for voters to get a clearer sense about Romney using benchmarks most familiar to them: faith and family.
For much of the campaign, Romney rarely mentioned his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the people he helped as a Mormon bishop, fearing it would put an unwanted spotlight on a religion viewed with suspicion by some.
His wealthy upbringing as the son of a former auto company executive and Michigan governor, George Romney, cut against sharing details about his comfortable upbringing with voters struggling in the economic downturn.
And his discomfort with discussing the wealth he accrued at Bain Capital LLC, particularly his refusal to release more than two years of tax returns, gave ammunition to Democratic charges that he was hiding something or playing by a set of rules reserved for society’s elite.
With a trio of issues common in most political stump speeches off-limits, the former private equity executive’s unease on the campaign trail became a larger part of his candidacy’s narrative.
Touring Google Inc. (GOOG:US)’s offices in Chicago before the Illinois primary last March, Romney paused at an engineer’s desk to say hello. “That’s a big lava lamp,” he said, gesturing to the blue light. “Congratulations.”
During a September stop for pizza at Lui Lui in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, Romney cracked a joke about the name of the restaurant, saying it reminded him of an old song.
“Louie, Louie, alright. There’s a song by that name from the 1960s,” he told a confused-looking teenage cashier. “I won’t favor you with that.”
Romney only truly unwinds around his family, and campaign advisers were uncertain about how he would handle the unpredictable interactions that can come in a presidential campaign.
To soften his image, he traded suits for skinny jeans. He posted messages on Twitter about commercial flights on Southwest Airlines and stops at Subway for lunch. And he insisted on spending less time at campaign headquarters in Boston and more time mingling with voters all across primary states.
His campaign scheduled bus tour after bus tour, packed with events like “Pancakes with Mitt” and “Spaghetti with Mitt.” They created all-American backdrops, seeking out specific types of straw after Romney informed his advance team he is allergic to hay.
The strategy didn’t always work: Romney was dubbed the next Herbert Hoover, MITT-Romney-BOT, and he was awarded the honorary George H.W. Bush “Wimp” prize from Newsweek. Democrats ran ads depicting him as a clueless multi-millionaire more interested in helping his wealthy friends than a struggling middle-class Americans. Voters ended up with a lot of facts about Romney -- he loves Greek yogurt, knows how to moonwalk and drives his motorboat fast around Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire -- yet few insights into his interior life.
Over the course of his campaign, only hints of the warm, sometimes goofy prankster described by friends trickled out to the public.
In a Sept. 14 interview with the daytime talk-show hosts of “Live Kelly & Michael,” he revealed his admiration for Nicole Polizzi, better known as Snooki on the reality show “Jersey Shore.” When show co-host Kelly Ripa asked Ann Romney what her husband wears to bed, the presidential candidate jumped in: “I think the best answer is as little as possible.”
Campaigning with Romney is like traveling back to the era of Sputnik and soda fountains, with dated expressions and awkward punch-lines, or Mittisms, as aides call them.
“Oh, my goodness,” Romney exclaimed, as he looked at old photos in the Chicago restaurant Harry Caray’s with the widow of the famous Cubs broadcaster. “Gosh, your husband, what a guy. I sure miss him.”
In Lebanon, Ohio, last month, Romney made a stop at the Golden Lamb Inn, a historic hotel owned by the family of his close adviser, Ohio Senator Rob Portman.
“Isn’t that something,” Romney said, as he toured a room named after John Quincy Adams. “He calls it the Golden Lamb, but I think, when you look at the prices, you’ll determine it’s the Golden Fleece.”
Portman mustered a shaky smile, before informing Romney that the price was about $150 a night.
In the final sprint, the Romney campaign took on an air of wistful, weary nostalgia.
Cruising through rallies in matching red and blue fleece emblazoned with the Romney logo, senior aides took photos with their phones and joked about singing the campaign’s theme song in their sleep. The candidate’s wife, Ann, walked down the aisle of the campaign plane handing out pastries for reporters and secret service agents.
Even Romney seemed to be savoring the final hours. On an early morning flight from Virginia to Iowa, he filmed sleeping staffers with his iPhone, perhaps saving the moment for posterity -- or, just maybe, committing his first presidential prank.
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