Denver — The elements of Mitt Romney’s Rocky Mountain rout were hatched weeks ago in Vermont’s Green Mountains. In early September, Romney slowed down his campaign schedule and retreated with a small group of advisers to the home of Kerry Healey, his former lieutenant governor. Ohio senator Rob Portman, a trusted ally, joined Stuart Stevens, Eric Fehrnstrom, Bob White, and a handful of other Romney confidants. They spent days holding mock debates, and nights reviewing President Obama’s stylistic tics. When they needed a break, they roamed around Healey’s secluded estate, which is 100 miles south of Burlington, Vt. But mostly they talked, over hot chocolate and coffee, about how best to communicate Romney’s message.
Portman says Romney’s willingness to fully commit to the prep was striking. Day after day, he’d get up early, exercise, and then join the team for hours of work. Advisers certainly played a role, but according to Portman, it was the candidate who drove his advisers. Even when he had a busy week of campaigning, Romney would always find time to study or hold a brief mock debate. “It was all him,” Portman tells me. “Honestly, I’ve spent a lot of time with Mitt Romney for the past month or so, and what I saw on stage is who he is. He’s smart, he’s articulate, and he’s got a big heart.”
During the opening prep sessions, the group quickly came to a consensus: At the podium, Romney would be forceful, nearly as assertive as he was in Healey’s living room. His advisers have always admired Romney’s ability to peel apart arguments in private, and they encouraged him to do the same at the debate, with a little polish. The goal was to overwhelm the president with liveliness and information, to force him to confront the messy details of his economic and fiscal record. The strategy, sources say, clicked with Romney for two reasons: He did not want to spend hours tinkering with his mannerisms, and he wanted to focus on internalizing data. He’d take advice on his voice, his posture, and the rest, but he wanted his prep time to be a policy workshop.
“This whole thing about ‘zingers,’ I never even heard that word discussed in debate prep,” Stevens says. “If you go back to the history and look at Governor Romney’s 20 debates, he likes policy, he likes substance, and he likes strong arguments that are based on merits and on differences. He’s never been one for debate tricks and sleight of hand.”
During the mock debates, Portman engaged Romney as if they were testy undergraduates at the Oxford Union. Portman, acting as Obama, hammered Romney on every part of his agenda, sometimes to the point of belittling him. “I’ve never seen Rob Portman lose a mock debate,” Stevens says. “He’s undefeated — but he cheats. He knows the questions and has notes.” (Stevens and Portman both advised George W. Bush before debates.) On September 6, as he visited a hardware store, Romney told reporters that Portman was getting under his skin. “I’m just glad I won’t be debating Rob Portman in the final debates,” Romney said, smiling. “He’s good.”
The practice made a difference. One longtime Romney friend tells me that Romney markedly improved throughout September as he devoted himself to his briefing books and the mock debates. The friend says Romney didn’t think of the debate as a political dialogue but as a grueling, 90-minute competition that demanded discipline. He prepared in the same way he used to review pending business deals at Bain Capital: He challenged his closest advisers about the most minor points, he spent a lot of time reading, and he constantly bantered with his aides about the other side’s weaknesses and strengths.
Romney’s approach slightly diverged from his campaign’s day-to-day operation, which has seized on Obama’s verbal stumbles. Romney didn’t want to sound canned, he wanted to sound informed, so he kept a few lines he liked from prep, such as “trickle-down government,” but decided against quoting Obama’s gaffes. It was about seeming competent and presidential under the bright lights. He’d leave the gotcha games for his rapid-response squad. “We didn’t talk about the ‘private sector is doing fine,’ nor did we talk about ‘he built it,’ nor did we talk about the vice president saying the middle class has been buried,” Stevens says.
To Stevens, Romney’s best moments were when he showcased his comfort with his gubernatorial record in Massachusetts, especially on education, and when he spoke about Obama’s failed green-energy initiatives. In a rare one-liner, Romney quipped that the president “picks losers” like Solyndra. Stevens says the “losers” passage was indicative of Romney’s ability to be snappy but not snippy. He’d lead with something sharp and follow with a couple of meaty paragraphs. “They were big, substantive moments that speak to who Mitt Romney really is,” Stevens says.
The little things mattered, too. Romney’s team wanted a dash of heart to go along with the punches. His researchers carefully culled more than a dozen anecdotes from the trail about people who were struggling in the Obama economy, and his policy aides provided examples of the Obama administration’s bureaucratic blunders. Ed Gillespie, Peter Flaherty, and Beth Myers, who are all political advisers, kept tabs on the sessions and offered candid takes on Romney’s points and his exchanges with Portman. They talked about the primary debates, devised better ways to approach the moderator (don’t back down, but don’t ramble on about the rules), and offered advice on what to do when your opponent is speaking (less note-taking, more direct eye contact).
Outside of Romney’s tight-knit inner circle, few Republicans were expecting him to come out fighting. They knew he was intelligent, but they didn’t know if he would be able to easily repel the president’s attacks. They worried that he might get rattled. One prominent Romney backer, however, predicted that Romney would impress. Chris Christie, the pugnacious New Jersey governor, told CBS News on Sunday that Romney would be effective. “This whole race is going to be turned upside down,” he said. “Thursday morning, you’re all going to be scratching your heads and saying ‘Wow, we’re going to have a barn burner for the next 33 days.’”
Christie, who has casually advised Romney before previous debates, was greeted with skepticism from many pundits, who thought that he was unreasonably raising expectations. Fehrnstrom, for his part, didn’t mind the comments. “He’s quite the prognosticator,” Fehrnstrom says as we chat outside the debate hall. On Sunday, Christie may have sounded off-key to outsiders, but those inside Romney World have known for weeks that their candidate was ready. As they see it, Romney’s latest ascent didn’t start on Wednesday. It started after the conventions at a mountain lodge in New England.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.