US elections: Mitt Romney, a challenger at the crossroads

US elections: Mitt Romney, a challenger at the crossroads
Denver:  As he ponders two futures, one in the White House, the other back home in Belmont, Mass., Mitt Romney is juggling two books: "Mornings on Horseback," a biography of President Theodore Roosevelt, and "The Faithful Spy," an escapist thriller about a daring CIA agent.

He wakes up around 5 a.m. for a workout and a conference call with his senior staff members, as he has all year, but he is adjusting to one of the new burdens of a would-be president: a widening security bubble that keeps him from popping into McDonald's to grab his favourite Fruit and Maple Oatmeal and from regularly hitting the hotel gym. (An elliptical machine now awaits him in most hotel rooms.)

And although supporters have started to call Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, "Mr. President" wherever he goes, he returns several times a day to an airplane seat whose custom-made headrest reminds him, in bright red and white stitching, that for now he remains just "The Gov."

In the frenzied, final days of a roller-coaster two-year run for president, Romney, the Republican nominee, has arrived at a strange and unfamiliar moment. The political prize that eluded him in 2008, and his father, George, four decades before that, is suddenly within agonizingly close reach, despite it all: an ugly and seemingly endless primary, wall-to-wall attacks by Democrats on the private equity firm he founded, a botched foreign trip and, not infrequently, gaffes.

All around him, aides who as recently as a month ago had been steeling themselves for defeat, murmuring that they had never really envisioned a job in the White House anyway, are now allowing themselves to privately muse about what life in Washington would be like.

Their boss is doing the same.

At a rally on Friday night, Romney stood before more than 20,000 cheering Ohioans, with his five sons sitting off to the side in red or navy "Romney-Ryan" fleeces. "Tonight we entered the final weekend of the campaign," Romney told supporters in West Chester. "At Obama rallies, they're saying, 'Four more years.' We have a different cry, of course. What is it?"

The crowd began chanting: "Four more days! Four more days!"

"Exactly right," Romney said.

He knows, of course, that it could all end for him on Tuesday inside a ballroom at the Boston Convention Center, a prospect that would snuff a decade's climb through the ranks of American politics. He is 65, and it is hard to imagine a third presidential campaign. But for now, he seems to be willing himself into the presidency, as much for the confidence of his staff as for motivating the undecided voters who may glimpse him on television.

On Friday, he started to read the line of a speech loaded into his teleprompter for a rally at a warehouse in West Allis, Ohio. "I want to help the hundreds of thousands of dreamers," the prepared text had him saying. "I will."

He decided to tweak the wording. "When I am president," he added, his voice rising, "I will."

He has pushed for a closing campaign message that outlines his plans for "Day One" in the White House - a phrase that now appears on his signs and podiums and in his stump speech. In private conversations with staff members, he has begun dropping references to "January," as he envisions how he might govern.

"This is a person who realizes that the presidency is within his grasp," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser who has worked with Romney for the past decade.

The changes in Romney's mood and demeanour over the past few weeks are subtle, those close him to say. Romney has never been known for Clintonian eruptions of emotion. But he now exudes a new and unmistakable confidence.

At the end of a giant rally, held a few days ago at a high school football field in Land O' Lakes, Fla., Romney did something unusual for him. He raced through an open corridor on the field, both arms extended as he high-fived the eager voters, celebrity style. "You don't see Mitt walk into a donor meeting slapping high fives," Fehrnstrom said. "It's just a very different mood and feel."

Romney started the fall with an unhurried public schedule of just a few events a week, bogged down with fundraising commitments and reluctant to plunge too quickly into the sleepless, barnstorming phase of the race. Now, he is cramming three or four events into each day, a wearying regimen that has occasionally become apparent in his hoarse voice and verbal slips.

On Sunday at a rally in Des Moines, Romney flubbed one of his signature stump speech lines: "Employment is higher today than when Barack Obama took office," he said, accidentally substituting "employment" for "unemployment."

Recalling his visit late last week with the owner of a struggling barbecue restaurant in Richmond, Va., he blanked on the company's age. "She said, 'we're closing down for good after 82 years' - was it 62 or 82?" he said. "Well, it's one of the two. After 62 or 82 years, she's closing down." To limit exhaustion-induced errors, Romney is ratcheting up his use of teleprompters in the last days of the race, aides said.

The disciplined candidate is also letting down his guard in unexpected ways. In Ohio last week, he broke from his usual script to reflect on the exhausting work of running for president. "This job," he said, "is quite an undertaking."

Later, he talked about the difficulty of relaxing after hectic hours of campaigning. "I get so much energy from you, by the way, that at the end of the day, it takes me a long time to slow down and fall asleep," he told thousands of people in a field in Davenport, Iowa.

Two years into the race, Romney's interior life remains something of a mystery - not just to voters but even to some of his aides. He seems capable of truly unwinding only in the company of his family. He eschews the raucous staff dinners and late-night strategy huddles that are a staple of campaign life. At night, he sometimes eats alone in his hotel room, savouring his solitude over takeout that aides order from nearby restaurants.

Aboard his plane, he devotes little time to chitchat. "He just goes right to his seat, takes out his iPad and gets to work," said Kevin Madden, a senior adviser.

He makes a point of talking to his wife, Ann - who is keeping her own slightly less demanding schedule of rallies and talks - every day in conversations squeezed in on the plane just before takeoff, in his sport-utility vehicle between events or at night back in his hotel room. On Sundays, he calls each of his five sons - all of whom have been campaigning with him recently - to check in, sometimes patching them into a conference call.

He is a careful student of the race that has enveloped his life. When he boards the front cabin of his campaign plane each morning, aides have already arranged the local and national newspapers on the table before him. He is a scanner of headlines and photos, not a cover-to-cover reader, they said. ("Four Days to Seal the Deal," was the first headline he saw Friday, on the cover of USA Today.)

On the plane that now doubles as his home on the road, he stocks peanut butter, honey and whole wheat bread, the components of his go-to sandwich. Hidden away, in an overhead bin or a nearby fridge, are his guilty pleasures: granola bars, pita chips, Kit Kats, Snickers and Greek yogurt with honey. ("The Greek yogurt industry has got to have a boost, just from the front of the plane," Madden said.)

In the waning days of the race, Romney's world has become smaller and ever more tightly controlled. He no longer ventures to the press cabin of his plane, as he used to, apparently fearing an encounter that could change the contours of the race.

After the third presidential debate, reporters asked Madden if Romney might hold a news conference to talk about the last days of the campaign. Madden scoffed: if you want to know what the candidate thinks, he said, listen to his speeches.

"The door to a brighter future is there, it's open, it's waiting for us," Romney likes to say at the end of his speeches now. "I need your vote, I need your help. Walk with me, walk together."

On Saturday, he surrounded himself with his entire team of top advisers, who made a rare joint appearance on his plane for the closing 72 hours of the race. Many of them have worked with him since his days in the Massachusetts Statehouse, and he wanted them by his side.

Over the weekend, he took out his iPhone and began to surreptitiously record video of his aides asleep in their seats. As he prowled the cabin, laughing quietly to himself, he seemed to understand that come Tuesday, win or lose, this chapter of his life would be over.

© 2012, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: November 06, 2012 09:14 IST

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