After Romney watched grainy video, a mad scramble to respond

September 18, 2012

Mitt Romney was inside the 1960s-era federal building in Los Angeles, in an FBI field office for his first official intelligence briefing as the Republican presidential nominee, when his personal aide, Garrett Jackson, showed him a video.

It was about 4 p.m., and the video was grainy. Romney could hardly see himself in the blurred shot taken from inside one of his private fundraisers, but the voice was clearly his. He knew he had said all those things — about “the 47 percent” who support President Obama, who don’t take “personal responsibility.” And, after conferring with his advisers, he quickly concluded he had to say something about it.

That decision set off a mad scramble from a typically calm and disciplined campaign staff. While Romney was en route to Costa Mesa, the heart of Orange County, Southern California’s Republican stronghold, to hold an evening fundraiser that would raise $4 million, aides scouted for a location to stage a news conference. First they looked outdoors before settling on a room deep inside the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the modern performing arts center where the fundraiser was being held.

At 6:29 p.m. came the urgent dispatch from the “pool” reporter traveling with Romney’s entourage: Romney would hold a press availability at 6:45 p.m. Romney’s traveling press secretary, Rick Gorka, mandated that journalists not report the fact that he would address the media until the news conference begins.

Many of the other reporters — who, with Romney’s public events now over, had been shopping at a nearby mall or out for a run or looking up places to go for dinner — rushed over to the Segerstrom Center. Some wore T-shirts and jeans, others came without their laptops. They were quickly escorted past scores of donors standing around elegantly appointed tables, drinking wine in the arts center’s lobby, and into a freight elevator to a room that Romney’s staff had commandeered.

A handful of reporters were brought in a few minutes too early, while aides were still assembling four flags (two U.S. and two Californian) and the blue curtain backdrop, and Gorka told the reporters to leave. The journalists waited in a nearby interior room, where the cellphone signal was so spotty that network television producers struggled to coordinate with their production desks in New York and Washington. The news conference was so hastily arranged that there was not time for the networks to arrange to carry it live. They would have to play it old-school, by feeding a tape.

A few moments later, at about 7 p.m., Romney, in a dark suit and a blue striped tie, stepped out to the podium. He made a short statement, looking down occasionally. Kevin Madden, his senior most aide traveling with him here, stood behind the dark curtain, looking anxious as he peeked out to watch.

Romney told reporters that he stood by his remarks in the video.

“Well, um, it’s not elegantly stated, let me put it that way,” he said. “I’m speaking off the cuff in response to a question, and I’m sure I can state it more clearly in a more effective way than I did in a setting like that.”

Romney answered just three questions, walking back behind the curtain as reporters shouted more. Over in the arts center’s main auditorium, about 1,000 donors were waiting for Romney. He was running an hour behind.

“Governor Romney hates being late,” Spencer Zwick, Romney’s national finance chairman, told the crowd. “We apologize for the delay. We had a press event that we had not anticipated we would do during the middle of a fundraiser.”

And then, at 8 p.m., Romney stepped out to a standing ovation and spoke enthusiastically about his chances on Election Day.

“What a crowd! California gets it! We might just win California!” Romney said, joking about turning the biggest of the blue states red.

Romney marveled at his environs — “I don’t know that I’ve ever performed in an arena like this” — and then proceeded to deliver his standard stump speech. This time, the press pool was in one of the balconies recording every word.

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.
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