In the first-class cabin of Delta Flight 832, the schmoozing began well before take-off.
Wayne Berman, a lobbyist for Blackstone Group LP, stood in the plane’s aisle, swapping stories with Rob Bishop, a U.S. House member from Utah, and Ron Kaufman, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney, over Biscoff cookies and complimentary cocktails.
All were headed to the same place: a weekend-long retreat in the mountain resort town of Park City, Utah, open only to the biggest contributors to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
More than 700 top fundraisers and their spouses attended the closed-door affair organized by the campaign to keep the money flowing as Romney heads into a heated fall election.
Fundraisers mingled with the candidate during an evening cook-out at Utah Olympic Park, watching freestyle skiers practice aerial tricks. At the Chateaux at Silver Lake, an Alpine-style resort nestled amid green mountains, they were whisked in golf carts to afternoon briefings with former secretaries of state and senators. And at night, in the hotel bars, they offered advice to campaign manager Matt Rhoades and other top strategists.
The price tag for this level of access: a donation of $50,000 or a fundraising total of $250,000 for Romney’s campaign.
“It’s a coming together for all the folks who have supported Governor Romney for a long time,” said Kerry Healey, who served under Romney as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. “We’re coming together for the final push.”
These kinds of retreats have become a trademark of the Romney political operation. Over the past two years, Romney has hosted donors for lunch and boat rides at his home on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire and toured Israel with fundraisers.
Campaign finance advocates say the unique level of access given to wealthy donors by the campaign illustrates the failures of current federal election rules. Hotel security closed off meeting rooms during the weekend, refusing to allow journalists any closer than the sidewalk outside the hotel.
“The presidential election and ultimately the presidency are back on the auction block, going to the highest bidders and the richest people,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington-based campaign-finance overhaul advocacy group.
Romney’s campaign sees the event as a crucial tool to build the arsenal necessary for the final five months of the campaign. The openness to donors is the mark of a man who spent years as a private equity executive persuading wealthy investors to part with their money.
“The personal contact makes all the difference,” said Dave Phillips, who served as U.S. ambassador to Estonia under George W. Bush and now heads Romney’s fundraising efforts in North Carolina.
Romney, 65, greeted donors by name at the evening barbecue, mingled with them after a breakfast speech by Arizona Senator John McCain, and answered their questions after industry panels on finance, foreign policy and health care.
The event was part pep rally, part family reunion.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, former Bush White House aide Mary Matalin and Weekly Standard editor and co-founder Bill Kristol raced up hills on golf carts to policy briefings.
Three men rumored to be on the vice presidential short list -- U.S. Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia and U.S. Senator John Thune of South Dakota -- sat on a panel titled “Innovation in America.”
And Republican strategist Karl Rove, now advising two outside political groups supporting Romney, described the state of the electorate in a talk peppered with jokes and colorful language.
With most national polls showing the contest in a near-dead heat, party strategists and officials could barely contain their excitement about the state of the race. Former Secretary of State James Baker III said the weekend reminded him of a meeting of backers of Gerald R. Ford in Aspen, Colorado, before the 1976 election -- with one significant difference.
“This year we’re going to win,” he said.
Donors marveled at the array of speakers and attendees assembled by the campaign.
“James Baker has always been one of my heroes,” said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics and Federal Relations at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and a long-time Romney supporter. “It’s like Jim Baker or Bono.”
For Bill Brady, who runs a hotel supply company in Las Vegas, the highlight was a lunchtime speech by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who explained her support for Romney and stressed the need for America to reemerge as a leader in the world. Audience members jumped to their feet with applause, prompting some to wonder whether Rice ought to be considered as Romney’s running mate.
“It was one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard,” Brady said.
Fundraisers, carrying tote bags embossed with a special campaign logo, shuttled to and from lectures on Israel, health care and media strategy. A “Women for Romney victory tea” featured the candidate’s wife, Ann, and former Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill.
Political director Rich Beeson taught a quick lesson on the Electoral College, laying out several pathways to the 270 votes needed for victory. Chief strategist Stuart Stevens played several recent ads to illustrate how the slogan “Believe in America” was reflected in the campaign. Pollster Neil Newhouse disputed a recent Bloomberg News poll showing Obama with a 13-point lead, using a series of slides detailing a number of other polls showing a tighter race.
For most donors, the highlight of the weekend was the chance to talk with the candidate at the Utah Olympic Park, a subtle reminder of Romney’s success as head of the 2002 Winter Games. As the sun set against the mountains, they stood in a tent adorned with chandeliers and listened to Romney and his family deliver a more personal version of their campaign message.
With four of his five sons watching, Romney spoke emotionally about his role as a father and grandfather and thanked those present for their support, according to donors.
“His remarks were very moving,” said Bobbie Kilberg, a chairwoman of the Northern Virginia Technology Council in Herndon, Virginia. “They gave you a really good glimpse at the personal Mitt Romney.”
Romney family members roamed the retreat grounds, mixing with health care investors from Greenwich, Connecticut, and insurance executives from Los Angeles.
One of the candidate’s nieces, Kristen Romney Hubbs, carried a large black-and-white painting of Romney’s face against the backdrop of an American flag. The flag, she said, helped draw out her uncle’s “emotional energy.”
Scott Romney, the candidate’s brother, walked out of the hotel lobby in a puffy jacket bearing the logo of Solamere Capital LLC, the private equity firm founded by Mitt Romney’s son Tagg and campaign fundraiser Spencer Zwick. Scott’s ex-wife, Ronna, talked with donors and reporters about her still-close relationship with Ann Romney.
The close encounters only went so far, though. Just before midnight, Beth Myers, a longtime Romney aide charged with vetting potential running mates, sat with other campaign workers and donors in the hotel bar. At the next table was Thune, the South Dakota senator considered to be a top prospect for the position.
Those two were not mingling.