The Realist in Romney Saw a Path Too Steep

By Michael D. Shear, Chris Cillizza and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 8, 2008

Mitt Romney wanted to know how bad things really were.

After six weeks of losses, culminating in Tuesday's embarrassing finish in all of the big-state contests, he gathered his inner circle Wednesday morning at the campaign's North End headquarters in Boston. Still very much the corporate fix-it man, whose methodical approach to business had made him the multimillion-dollar personal fortune he was now spending at an alarming rate, Romney had ordered up formal presentations on whether to keep fighting against a surging Sen. John McCain.

One adviser assessed the communications and messaging challenges of staying in the race. Another described tactics. A third offered the financial bottom line. Another mapped out the difficult, state-by-state path Romney would face as an underdog trying to catch up to McCain in the Republican delegate count.

"There was a path," said a top aide who helped develop one of the presentations. "There was absolutely zero room for error. And then, it was, at best, probably not more than a 20 percent chance."

Despite the grim outlook, Romney announced no decision. Flanked by his wife, Ann, his son Tagg and his former business partner Bob White, he listened, asked questions, jotted notes on a legal pad. Then he left for home to write his speech for yesterday's conference of conservative activists. The draft he e-mailed to top aides just after dinnertime said he was "standing aside" for the good of the Republican Party.

"That was when we knew," said a senior adviser.

For a year, Romney had been the only candidate to put his money and organizational resources in all the early-voting states even as his rivals picked their battles. He faced former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in Iowa, McCain in New Hampshire and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in Florida. In each place, he lost.

But he soldiered on, spending an estimated $50 million of his personal funds -- 20 percent of his publicly stated net worth -- and believing all the way until the Super Tuesday mega-primary, his advisers said privately, that the nomination could be his. In the days leading up to Tuesday, he poured more than $1 million into television ads in California, a primary he ended up losing big.

"We thought if we won California we could keep on keeping on," a senior Romney aide recalled.

But the calendar was against Romney. To stop McCain, he would have to win virtually all of the delegates in every contest in every state left to vote. And so, a campaign that began with seemingly limitless resources and enormous hype ended with an admission by Romney that his carefully plotted strategy had failed to lift an unknown former governor to the head of his party.

"As of today, more than 4 million people have given me their vote for president, less than Senator McCain's 4.7 million, but quite a statement nonetheless," Romney told the activists in Washington yesterday. "Eleven states have given me their nod, compared to his 13." He paused, looking drawn and tired, then added: "Of course, because size does matter, he's doing quite a bit better with his number of delegates."

The Midnight Riders

At the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., last February, when he announced his 2008 bid, the perfectly coiffed, ramrod-straight ex-governor looked like the ideal Republican candidate -- a conservative who seemed certain to face either McCain or Giuliani, both men whose moderate credentials would force them to run as centrists.

But in positioning himself as the only true conservative in a race that didn't appear to have one, Romney decided to abandon the moderate bearing that had served him well as a can-do GOP governor of liberal Massachusetts. That choice prompted months of attacks by his rivals, who took to calling him a flip-flopper with no principles.

Romney early on assembled an all-star team of consultants to sell himself as a product, offered to the public with scores of highly targeted television commercials. He was telegenic and looked and sounded presidential, and he had the money to fund the sort of extended effort on television that none of his rivals could match. But the scores of ads took over his campaign, providing no clear message for the voters to see.

And soon the massive team of consultants -- known as the Midnight Riders in homage to another Bostonian, Paul Revere -- were feuding among themselves. The idea had been to re-create the sort of synergistic approach to television commercials adopted by President Bush in his two successful national bids; several of the Romney media gurus had been part of that team. The initial group was Alex Castellanos, Curt Anderson, Brad Todd and Larry McCarthy. Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer, who served as the lead media consultants for McCain's effort until July, signed on in August.

But the newcomers feuded with the others about the proper direction for the campaign, according to several senior advisers, with Castellanos and Anderson arguing for Romney to run an ideological race based on his conservative beliefs, and Stevens and Schriefer pushing for a focus on Romney's r¿sum¿ and accomplishments.

Even as the media team argued, others in the organization felt that too much time and money was being spent on television ads and not enough on the ground game in key early states. "They had a chokehold on strategy," one adviser said of the media team. "It was a deadlocked panel of advisers who were pulling in different directions about where the resources had to go."

In the end, the millions of dollars spent on television did little but raise expectations for Romney. For months last year, the polls rewarded the fact that he was the only candidate on the air in Iowa, New Hampshire and the other early-voting states. But his leads evaporated once the others arrived.

One Romney adviser described a "play it safe" strategy that was a result of the months-long fight among Romney's highly paid consultants: "Part of this gridlock was the inevitable byproduct of a terribly divided strategy team."

'Huckabee on Our Flank'

Aug. 11 should have been a banner day for Romney.

Months of organizing and millions of dollars spent on campaign commercials in Iowa had put him in the top spot heading into the Ames straw poll -- the first key test of the Republican nomination fight.

Throughout the day, signs of Romney's largesse were apparent. Children played in huge blow-up jungle gyms. Supporters wore canary-yellow T-shirts with "Team Mitt" emblazoned on them. A sprawl of white tents provided much-needed shade -- temperatures neared triple digits -- and unending plates of barbecue and bottles of water.

By nightfall, the campaign had packed Iowa State's Stephens Auditorium with cheering supporters. The results confirmed Romney's victory: He won 4,516 votes -- 2,000 more than his nearest competitor. But in a surprise, Huckabee, not Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), claimed second place.

Some on Romney's staff were thrilled. Brownback had attacked Romney repeatedly in the days leading up to the straw poll, and his third-place finish signaled that the end was near for the senator. Others in Romney's inner circle were worried. Huckabee's unexpected showing -- the result of a patchwork coalition led by home-school advocates, "fair tax" supporters and evangelical Christians -- was a sign that trouble was brewing on the conservative right, a key voting bloc.

The results "kept the guy that could do the most damage to us in Iowa alive," one senior Romney official said yesterday.

Inside the campaign, disagreements soon raged about how to handle Huckabee. Some insisted that he must be directly confronted with hard-hitting direct mail and television ads. Others resisted, arguing that the first campaign to go negative would be punished by Iowa voters, who dislike the rough-and-tumble of national campaigns.

The group urging discretion won out for months. It wasn't until late November, when public polls showed Huckabee surging to the top in Iowa on the strength of his appeal to evangelical Christians, that the campaign began sending out hard-hitting mail pieces. And, just before Christmas, Romney decided to take on Huckabee with television ads that accused the former governor of giving parole to murderers.

It was too late. Huckabee had solidified support within the evangelical community and unified conservatives behind his candidacy, robbing Romney of the foundation he had hoped to build for himself in Iowa. Huckabee won a surprisingly large nine-point victory, a setback for Romney that forced a radical rethinking of his early-state strategy.

"The theory that we had built it on was the rolling snowball," said senior Romney strategist Tom Rath. "Iowa begat New Hampshire. Every time we got a shot at McCain, one on one, we always had Huckabee on our flank."

Key Battles Lost

Huckabee kept Romney from using Iowa as a springboard into New Hampshire five days later. Without a bounce, Romney watched as McCain resurrected his campaign with a win in the state that had jump-started his 2000 presidential bid.

Then came South Carolina.

Romney had long identified this as a key state; it had, after all, sunk McCain in 2000 when he failed to convince the state's conservatives that he was one of them. Romney had been running an active campaign, led by well-regarded political operative Terry Sullivan, in the Palmetto State for the better part of a year. He had also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads. But he still lagged as conservatives rallied around Huckabee. Romney, whose Mormon religion was the subject of ugly e-mails, ran a distant and disappointing fourth.

Florida was the next -- and, in retrospect, the last -- major battleground for Romney. Giuliani was making the state his firewall and seemed likely to fracture McCain's center-left coalition.

But as Giuliani faded, Huckabee's surprising resilience kept Romney from coalescing conservatives behind him and claiming the victory he so badly needed heading into Super Tuesday.

The final days of the Romney campaign had a surreal quality as the candidate flew from one sparsely attended event to another in an effort to find a breakthrough victory. Some of the stops, such as in St. Louis and Nashville, were in states where he ended up placing third.

Within the campaign bubble, there was scant evidence that things were amiss. His staff added a flight to California, forcing Romney to fly from Georgia to Long Beach, spend a couple of hours there, and then fly through the night to West Virginia so he would arrive in time to address its GOP convention. He had barely three hours of sleep.

Romney himself seemed in high spirits. He showed little sign that he felt he was on a death march, though there were occasional glimpses of wistfulness. When he told reporters he had e-mailed New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady before the Super Bowl, he added, "I wish he'd sent me a couple of plays."

On Tuesday afternoon, news of Huckabee's surprise victory in West Virginia foreshadowed the end to come. The talkative Romney suddenly would not take questions from reporters after he cast his ballot in the well-heeled Boston suburb of Belmont. In a brief statement, with his wife at his side, he said that it was "fun" to see his name on the ballot -- and that he just wanted to get back home.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company