COLUMBUS, Ohio — The final day of Mitt Romney’s six-year quest for the presidency began like so many others. Another bowl of cereal in another Marriott hotel. Another conference call with the same senior aides. Another motorcade to another rally in another swing state.
But all around Romney on Monday were reminders of the weight of destiny and the gravity of having arrived, finally, at the moment of judgment. Archival footage played on Jumbotrons at each campaign stop showing his late father, George Romney, making the same pitch to voters that his son is making now: “Look — I’m in public life today because I’m concerned about America.”
In Florida, a man handed the Republican nominee six blue buttons from George Romney’s 1968 presidential campaign that he had been holding on to for years in a plastic bag. The buttons were a reminder to Romney — the family’s youngest child, whose birth was considered a miracle by his parents — that he carries the extraordinary expectations of a pioneering American family.
On a breakneck final full day of campaigning that was to take him from Florida to Virginia, Ohio and New Hampshire, and back home to Belmont, Mass., well after midnight, Romney savored the fact that on his long and at times tortured political journey he had reached an important milestone: People were packing aircraft hangars and basketball arenas screaming his name.
“I am looking around to see if we have the Beatles here or something to have brought you,” Romney told 8,500 screaming fans in Fairfax County at George Mason University’s Patriot Center. An estimated 3,000 more listened outside.
When Romney turned the microphone over to his wife, Ann, her mind drifted to life in the White House, just 20 miles away.
“Are we going to be neighbors soon?” she asked the crowd.
The answer to that question lies less in what Romney said or did Monday and more in the race he ran and the political machine he built over the past two years. This much, his advisers knew. Many of them decamped from the campaign’s Boston headquarters to fly around the swing states with the candidate.
In the charter jet’s first-class cabin, they formed a protective cocoon around Romney. They thumbed through photos from the campaign trail, told stories about when they all first met or their favorite movies. Romney’s favorite is “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” and he spent one flight reciting lines from memory. Together, they snacked on Greek yogurt and bagels with lox, and they took in the fact that everything Monday would be Romney’s last as a candidate — his last visit to Florida, his last rally in Northern Virginia, his last trek to New Hampshire.
On what amounted to an 18-hour day, a sense of giddy relief enveloped Romney’s traveling entourage.
In Sanford, Fla., at Romney’s first of five rallies, the crowd interrupted the candidate to chant, “One more day! One more day! One more day!” Romney looked down at Garrett Jackson, his 26-year-old personal aide. Jackson, who has been at Romney’s side almost every day for two years, was standing below the stage at his feet. They locked eyes and smiled at each other.
As spokesman Rick Gorka briefed reporters on the campaign plane, noting that he had a bottle of Patron tequila aboard “to help me get through this day if I need to,” trip director Charlie Pearce sneaked up behind him and placed a Philadelphia Eagles helmet on his head.
“I don’t know if it’s ever going to come off,” Gorka joked as reporters snapped pictures with their iPhones.
Later, Mitt and Ann Romney marveled at a custom doll another staffer had made for Gorka after his moment of fame this summer, when he cursed at reporters during Romney’s foreign trip. The Gorka Doll comes complete with a Secret Service security pin, and if you press a button, it says, “Kiss my a--.”
By Monday, the campaign was effectively running on autopilot. All of the strategic decisions were made well before, except for one. Romney decided at the last minute to revise his schedule for Tuesday to visit campaign volunteers in two key states after voting in Belmont. He will fly to Cleveland to gin up turnout in Ohio, the most critical battleground, as well as to Pittsburgh, part of an eleventh-hour bid to wrest Pennsylvania from President Obama’s column.
Aides said Romney wanted to stay active, to keep the energy coursing through his campaign. And, they said, he did not want to sit at home when there were hours left to campaign.
All day Monday, Romney strove to strike a valedictory tone, speaking in grand, uplifting terms about the promise of American renewal. If people elect him, Romney said, better days are ahead.
“Tomorrow, we begin a new tomorrow,” Romney said in Sanford. “Tomorrow, we begin a better tomorrow. This nation is going to begin to change for the better tomorrow.”
At the next stop, before a few thousand people assembled on the airport tarmac in Lynchburg, Va., Romney spoke of returning bipartisanship to Washington to help solve the nation’s pressing problems. “This is much more than our moment,” Romney told the crowd. “It’s America’s moment of renewal and purpose and optimism. And we’ve journeyed far and wide in this great campaign for America’s future — and we know we’re almost home.”
But first, three more rallies, the last one scheduled to feature a performance by Kid Rock, the scruffy, long-haired, decidedly un-Romney rocker from Detroit whose song “Born Free” has been Romney’s campaign anthem all year.
Starting Wednesday, Romney may never again walk out in public to that tune. But on this final full campaign day, its lyrics provided solace: “I don’t want no one to cry, but tell ’em if I don’t survive, I was born free!”
Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.