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23

Mar

The Romney Campaign

This is a first-person essay my editors asked me to write about what a typical is like covering Mitt Romney. It was sent out exclusively to our print and digital subscribers — apparently part of a newsletter called “The Story Behind The Story” — but I’m reproducing it all below…

I cannot remember the last time I went to the gym.

I eat most of my meals — lukewarm chain restaurant food, if I’m lucky — from a plastic foam container precariously balanced on my lap, as whatever bus I’m on trundles through whichever early primary state I’ve just landed in.

And in one epic, 18-hour workday, I woke up in Ohio before dawn, connected in Minnesota, covered an event in Idaho, and finally drifted off to sleep in Utah.

When friends and colleagues ask me what covering Mitt Romney for The New York Times is like, the best analogy I’ve come up with is that it’s a bit like a day at the circus: incredibly fun, full of heightened drama and more than a little surreal.

In fact, covering a presidential candidate, much like being a presidential candidate, is a series of highs and lows, often all at once, more frustration and elation than you ever imagined possible, all in a single day. Day, after day, after day. After day.

A typical day on the trail goes something like this: Baggage call at 6:45 a.m., so Secret Service dogs can sweep your gear to make sure it’s “clean” and not a security threat. Pile onto the press bus to drive to an early morning rally at a fence-post manufacturing company in Ohio. Back on the bus after the rally, where you try to file a quick story to The Caucus blog, while making calls to sources for that larger feature you’ve been putting off. Arrive at the next event, a town hall several hours south of where you began. Cover the town hall, and pile back on the bus (where takeout lunch from a nearby Applebee’s awaits) to the drive to the airport, where Mr. Romney’s charter flight is ready to whisk you away to North Dakota. Wheels down and — you guessed it — back on the bus to drive to Mr. Romney’s final rally of the day, in a high school gym. Finish up a story for the next day’s paper before deadline, and head to the hotel, around 8 or 9 p.m. And then, of course, hit the hotel bar or a local restaurant for dinner, ideally with a source or two.

Soon enough, every sheet-metal factory and diner begins to blur together, and the only way you can tell you’re in another state is because the jacket you huddled in during a blizzard in Grand Junction, Colo., seems out of place now that the Romney charter plane has dropped you back in the deserts of Reno, Nev.

Campaigns are long, frustrating, exhausting slogs, but if you were to ask any reporter on the bus if there’s anything they’d rather be doing, the answer would be a resounding no.

We’re spending our year observing up close the man-who-could-be-president, covering what he says and does — and even how he laughs — for millions of readers. (For the record, Mr. Romney’s laugh often sounds like someone stating the sounds of laughter, a staccato “Ha. Ha. Ha.”)

Fact-checking, policy stories, horse-race coverage and profiles of aides are all part of political reporting. But those of us covering Mr. Romney from inside “the bubble,” the coterie of reporters, aides and advisers who accompany him everywhere, also get to glimpse the most human and personal side of the candidate. Hopefully, by the end of the campaign, we’ll be able to tell our readers how Mr. Romney treats his young staff members, how he handles pressure and what he’s like when he thinks no one is looking.

Already, we’ve learned a thing or two about his mannerisms. Mr. Romney loves guessing the ages and ethnicities of voters — often incorrectly. Whenever Mr. Romney bends down to chat with a little kid, the whole press corps giddily inches forward, waiting for the inevitable moment when he asks a boy who is clearly 4 or 5, “How old are you? 9? 10?” (His favorite guess for nationality is French-Canadian, which was a reasonably safe bet in New Hampshire, but became more precarious in more recent primary states, like Florida and Ohio.)

And, of course, it’s tons of fun.

My job has taken me to Las Vegas, where I went on a 30-minute run at the craps table that briefly earned me the nickname “Golden Arm,” and to Toledo, where, at a Japanese steakhouse, I looked on as my colleagues tried to catch shrimp (and sake) in their mouths.

I have driven back from a debate in New Hampshire during leaf-peeping season, when the trees had just turned. I tried to remember the vivid golds and rusts and reds, because I knew I’d be back in a few months for the primary and its less hospitable, wintry landscape.

And, on a free Saturday morning in Salt Lake City, I took a tour of the grounds of the Mormon Temple. There, young Mormon missionaries happily guided us around Temple Square, answering every question we had: about their religion, about the temple itself, about the Mormon marriage practice of “sealing” couples together for eternity. They were polite and thorough, though they seemed a bit overwhelmed to be standing in front of a half-dozen journalists calling out questions.

The other night, after another long day, I stumbled across a colleague from The Washington Post, slumped in an oversize chair in the lobby of our hotel. “I’m just so tired,” he said, “I think because of all the laughter.”

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