It was a scene more fitting for a whodunit mystery than a vice-presidential rollout.
U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan -- determined not to be seen as he began making his way from his Wisconsin home to the Norfolk, Virginia, battleship where he would be named Mitt Romney’s running mate -- left through the back door of his house on Aug. 10 and crept into the woods that led to his boyhood home, passing his old tree fort as he went.
On the other side, he met an aide who would sneak him to a small airport for a chartered flight that would begin an adventure that he says is still “going from the surreal to the real.”
Romney, 65, seeking a game-changing running mate at a crucial moment in the presidential race, named Ryan, 42, yesterday as the other half of what his campaign is calling “America’s Comeback Team.”
Until the last moments, he and his staff were determined to keep his months-long quest for a No. 2 under wraps and his final choice secret. At a hangar at Dulles International Airport in Virginia yesterday at the close of Romney and Ryan’s first day campaigning as a pair, Romney’s top aide, Beth Myers, described the painstaking deliberations and sometimes cloak-and-dagger tactics they used to pull it off.
At the start of the four-month process, Romney gave search chief Myers one simple directive, she said: “That the candidates must be qualified to take office on Day One.” Choosing among what she described as “a large group” of contenders -- and then hiding the pick from a frenzied press corps and the public -- was more complicated.
Ryan’s forest detour wasn’t the first time he had taken pains to avoid being spotted, according to Myers’ account. After Romney decided on Aug. 1 that Ryan was his choice and called the Wisconsin lawmaker to summon him to Massachusetts for a sit-down meeting, Ryan donned a casual shirt, jeans, a baseball cap and sunglasses to ensure he wasn’t recognized en route from Chicago to a small airport in Hartford, Connecticut.
“We gave a lot of thought on how to make this work undetected,” said Myers, who sent her 19-year-old son, Curt, to meet Ryan in Hartford and drive him to her home in Brookline, Massachusetts.
While Romney had yet to offer him the post, the seven-term congressman had a hunch what was in store.
“By the time we met in person, I kind of knew it was going to happen, and I was deeply humbled,” Ryan told reporters traveling on Romney’s campaign plane last night from Dulles. “It was the biggest honor I’ve ever been given in my life.”
It was there, in Myers’ dining room on Aug. 5, that Romney and Ryan had a chance to talk about how their pairing would work in the campaign against President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden.
“We talked about the campaign, how it would be run,” Romney told reporters last night. “We talked about how we’d work together if we get the White House, what the relationship would be, how we’d interact and be involved in important decisions. We talked about our families and what this meant for them, and the challenge for them.”
Ryan accepted the offer, a decision he told reporters yesterday was an easy one.
The conversation was the culmination of an arduous process that began in April, when Romney’s senior aides put together briefings on a broad group of possible vice-presidential candidates -- Myers declined to say how many, except that the group was “large” -- that would be whittled down to a short list by the start of May.
Calling All Candidates
Romney called all the candidates and asked whether they wanted to be considered -- Myers said they all did -- then scrutinized his choices, discussing them extensively with top aides, friends and confidants.
Romney met with senior advisers -- including Stuart Stevens, Russ Schriefer, Peter Flaherty, Eric Fehrnstrom, Ed Gillespie, Ron Kaufman, pollster Neil Newhouse, campaign manager Matt Rhoades, and campaign chairman and confidant Bob White -- for a gut check. He made his final choice on Aug. 1.
Myers had done some preparation of her own, seeking advice from Republicans who were veterans of prior vice presidential searches and rollouts, including former Vice President Richard Cheney and his daughter, Liz Cheney, and former Secretary of State James Baker.
She also recruited a small group of volunteer attorneys to vet the candidates in a locked, secure room at the Romney campaign’s Boston headquarters, poring over questionnaires and public records and leaving all their materials -- none of which could ever be duplicated -- in a safe when they weren’t in use.
Among the files collected from Ryan were several years of tax returns, Myers said, declining to detail how many. That means Romney had access to more of Ryan’s tax records than the public has had to those of the presidential candidate himself. Romney released his 2010 tax return and has promised to provide his 2011 filing when it’s available, yet has resisted calls to disclose prior years’ information.
Shortly after Romney’s Aug. 5 one-on-one meeting with Ryan, word reached Myers’ home of the shooting at a Sikh temple in Ryan’s district -- an event that would ultimately throw off the planned timing of the team’s rollout. Originally slated for Aug. 10 in New Hampshire before the start of a four-day bus tour through swing states, the announcement had to be moved to yesterday after a memorial service for the Sikh victims was scheduled for that day.
The bus tour itself sparked a frenzy of speculation with its itinerary -- states including Virginia, Florida and Ohio, which are home to Governor Bob McDonnell, and Senators Marco Rubio and Rob Portman, all believed to be vice presidential contenders. A news report yesterday that a charter jet had flown from Boston to Janesville, Wisconsin -- Ryan’s hometown -- added to the public guessing.
Romney spent part of Friday afternoon phoning short-listers he hadn’t selected, including Portman. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty had received word on Aug. 6 that he wouldn’t be Romney’s choice.
That left Ryan, who flew with his family to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and holed up with top aides at a Fairfield Inn, where the group ordered in from Applebee’s and prepared Ryan for his speech. The campaign distributed an advisory late on the night of Aug. 10 saying that Romney would announce his choice the next morning on the USS Wisconsin, further feeding the speculation around Ryan. Then Myers switched off her phone.
The official announcement came the way Romney’s team had always promised it would -- through a social media application it had announced weeks earlier. Then the campaign issued a news release and about two hours later, Ryan bounded off of the bunting-adorned battleship and joined Romney for the first time as his running mate as rousing music blared.
“Big day!” Romney told reporters later. “It’s now two-on-two instead of two-on-one.”