Mitt Romney works aboard his campaign plane Friday in Columbus, Ohio. (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)
ABOARD THE ROMNEY PLANE — In the waning days of the 2012 campaign, there is a renewed energy to Mitt Romney’s rallies: a crackling sense of excitement, chants of “Three! More! Days!” and genuine optimism that the Republican candidate could actually defeat President Obama on Tuesday.
But when Romney retreats to his campaign plane after each event with his aides and his wife Ann there is now a hint of something else: relief.
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This has been a long journey for Romney and his team, a corps of aides that first came together for Romney’s gubernatorial run in 2002 and expanded their ranks in 2006 as he planned his first run for president. At first they traveled commercially with the candidate; these days some of them have essentially moved onto the campaign plane, a second home of sorts as they shuttle from hotel to hotel.
On Saturday as Romney flew from New Hampshire to Iowa there were new additions to the flight manifest: half a dozen top aides who escaped the frenzy of his Boston headquarters to spend the final days with Romney on the road. In the front cabin, they rotated between a pair of four-seat tables and the reclining seats, each of which is capped with a red faux suede seat cover stitched with its occupant's name. (On Romney’s seat: it’s “The Gov”).
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Among the newcomers were Mike Leavitt, the head of Romney’s transition team, a job he was chosen for in part because of his “Zen effect” on the candidate and his team; longtime senior advisors Beth Myers and Peter Flaherty; and finance director Spencer Zwick, who is known affectionately by his colleagues as the sixth Romney son.
For many months, Romney has spent his flights working studiously on his iPad, scrolling through policy briefings, revising his speeches and jotting his thoughts in a campaign journal. But those tasks are mostly complete.
On Saturday he perched on an armrest near his wife munching a cookie from their favorite Belmont, Mass., bakery. And he stood for a long time, his head nearly touching the ceiling and his arm draped over the overhead compartment, talking to Bob White, his best friend and troubleshooter in nearly every endeavor since their early days together at Bain Consulting.
In this traveling band, White has been among Romney’s most constant companions. There is also Stuart Stevens, who serves as strategist, ad man and speechwriter, while keeping Romney entertained with tales about campaigns dating back to Ronald Reagan, spy novels and his Nordic sporting adventures.
Never far from Romney is his body man, Garrett Jackson, a Mississippi native who keeps a watchful eye over the governor on every rope line and during every meeting, and provides a travelogue via Twitter of Romney’s lighter moments (from Friday night’s introduction of his grandchildren to Kid Rock, to the peanut butter and honey sandwiches that are Romney’s daily ritual on his bus).
For Jackson and several other aides who rarely get to go home — some have in fact given up their apartments — the overhead and under-seat compartments double as a (neatly arranged) closet and chest of drawers, holding a jumble of pillows, extra layers, Dopp kits, sneakers and more than half a dozen footballs (one signed by John Elway) that make an appearance during slow moments on the tarmac.
Suit jackets and garment bags hang from the partition that separates the staff cabin from the press, a mini-steamer stashed away for wrinkle emergencies. With an advance staff dominated by boys, there are also Nerf guns, a foam bat and a cornhole set painted with Romney’s red, white and blue logo.
Occasionally, Romney has been spotted late at night with a flashlight rummaging through one overhead compartment that holds favorite snacks such as pretzels, crisps, pita chips and, at one time, beef jerky (a gift from the actual Jack Link), which he passed out to reporters during one of his last visits to the back of the plane in late September.
With his staff clearly terrified by the possibility of last-minute mistakes, Romney doesn’t take his chance mingling with reporters anymore. But his wife has never been that cautious, often sneaking back without clearing it with the press aides.
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Rejoining her husband on the campaign trail after her last solo events Friday, Ann Romney strolled down the aisle Saturday offering pumpkin whoopie pies to Secret Service agents and the media.
The grandmother of 18, who has spoken openly about her struggles with multiple sclerosis, looked refreshed despite the couple’s 1 a.m. arrival in New Hampshire. She had visibly limped on the short walk from the plane to the motorcade with her husband, who cradled a sleeping grandchild against his shoulder. (Her aides chalked it up to fatigue).
Ann Romney sounded a touch wistful as she passed through the cabin, talking about her emotional last speech this week in which she said she had heard the “voices and passion of the people out there that are really hurting.”
But there was also that note of relief.
“Three more days,” she said. “It’s been long. It’s been a long road.”
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