NORFOLK, Va. — After Mitt Romney decided on a running mate, Paul Ryan’s carefully planned transition from congressman to vice presidential candidate began — in deep secret.
Almost a week ago, Ryan snuck through Chicago’s O’Hare airport in a baseball cap and sunglasses and flew to New England. A Romney adviser’s 19-year-old son picked up Ryan and drove him to a private meeting in his parents’ dining room where the deal was sealed.
By Friday afternoon, Ryan was cutting through the Wisconsin woods behind his home to evade a reporter on the street out front, and heading to North Carolina. By night, he was eating Applebee’s takeout at a nondescript chain hotel in that state and preparing for his big debut speech.
All this, so that no one would see it coming: A Saturday morning unveiling of the GOP ticket in Norfolk outside the USS Wisconsin, the battleship named for Ryan’s home state, as the sweeping theme from the movie “Air Force One” played.
This was the culmination of a methodical, highly secretive process that involved 10 top Romney staffers, a volunteer team of attorneys, a secret secure room in Romney’s Boston headquarters, and reams of paper on a long and then a short list of potential candidates.
In the end, the decision about who to pick rested only with Romney: A candidate who is known for marshaling opinions from across the spectrum, gathering and analyzing all the available data, and then evaluating the risks — before making the final call alone.
The people around Romney told him it was risky.
As the Republican presidential candidate prepared to pick his running mate, he kept in constant touch with his senior advisers. They met in small groups and alone with the candidate. He talked to a number of other friends and confidantes, soliciting advice and opinions.
Aides knew the decision was fraught, and they told Romney so. It was a choice, they knew, that would fundamentally re-shape the race for the presidency. It would acknowledge Romney needed to offer voters more than just being the guy who wasn’t Democratic President Barack Obama. And it would tie Romney to the architect of a highly controversial budget proposal that Democrats are eager to use to badger the Republican.
Romney, himself, decided the chance was worth taking.
“This was Mitt’s decision,” said Beth Myers, the senior adviser who led the vice presidential search. “He kept his own counsel.”
In picking Ryan, Romney bypassed Republicans including Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Officials said he had called all five to notify them of his decision. Pawlenty received a call Monday evening, the day after Ryan accepted, while the other four were all notified on Friday, just hours before the announcement.
Romney’s campaign kept the details of the search carefully concealed until late Saturday.
Myers outlined the process for reporters who gathered in a cavernous airport hanger at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, saying she consulted with former Vice President Dick Cheney about the extensive, highly sensitive process.
A long list drawn up in April of possible contenders was narrowed by May. Romney called the people on it to ask if they were willing to undergo the intensive vetting process.
All said yes. Everyone who was asked submitted detailed questionnaires and paperwork, including several years’ worth of tax returns.
The volunteer attorneys sequestered in a secured room pored over the documents. They dug through public records. Each night, they locked the paper in safes in the Boston headquarters.
Some questions came up. So in June, during an event for donors in Park City, Utah, Myers met with several candidates to clarify a few more details with each. On July 2, she met with Romney at his home in Wolfeboro, N.H., where they went through folders on each person under consideration.
On Wednesday, August 1, the day after returning from a weeklong trip abroad, Romney met one last time with the nine advisers he had consulted throughout the process, including longtime friend Bob White, campaign manager Matt Rhoades and years-long confidante Ron Kaufman.
It was one final gut check.
That afternoon, Romney called Ryan from Myers’ office. Would he come to Boston to meet with Romney?
Yes, came the reply.
So Ryan — asked to dress casually — arrived at O’Hare airport in Chicago in jeans, a baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses. No one recognized him. He flew to Hartford, Conn., where Beth Myers’ 19-year-old son, Curt Myers, picked him up in a rented SUV and drove him to the Myers family home in Brookline, Mass. Meanwhile, a Secret Service detail drove Romney from his lake house in New Hampshire, and the two men met alone for over an hour in her dining room.
“We talked about the campaign and how it would be run and talked about how we’d work together if we got the White House; what the relationship would be, how we’d interact, and be involved in important decisions,” Romney said of the meeting as his campaign plane flew from Virginia to North Carolina late Saturday.
Romney and his team had been looking for someone who could play a partnership role in the White House.
Aides involved in the selection had read Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson as a cautionary tale — as John F. Kennedy’s vice president, Johnson was often cut out of major policy decisions.
When they walked out of the dining room, Ryan had agreed to be on the ticket.
“By the time we met in person I kinda knew it was gonna happen,” Ryan said late Saturday. “And, ah, I was very humbled. It was the biggest honor I’ve ever been given in my life.”
While Ryan was still at Myers’ home, news broke of the shooting that killed 6 at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
Ryan issued a statement that day saying he was “deeply saddened” by the tragedy.
Romney advisers had hoped to announce Ryan’s selection Friday in New Hampshire, but the funeral for the temple shooting victims was schedule for that morning.
Plans were scrapped. A new location was selected. The announcement would come Saturday morning at the USS Wisconsin, the battleship named for Ryan’s home state.
Ryan attended the service for the shooting victims Friday in Wisconsin, as did Tagg Romney, the eldest son of the GOP candidate. Ryan, a generation younger than Mitt Romney, is 42 — the same age as Tagg.
Then the ruse began.
Ryan’s family — his wife, Janna, and three children — left the funeral and were taken to the airport separately. Ryan, with a staffer, drove to his house. He walked in the front door and then out the back, crossing his backyard and walking through the woods that separate the house where he now lives from the home where he grew up.
“I know those woods like the back of my hand, so it wasn’t too hard to walk through ‘em,” Ryan said, adding that he passed by a tree fort he had built as a kid.
His chief of staff had driven around the block and picked him up in the other house’s driveway.
Ryan and his family flew from Wisconsin to Elizabeth City, N.C., where Myers’ son again picked him up and drove him, this time to a Fairfield Inn. Ryan made some last-minute preparations to his speech, and met with Myers, strategist Ed Gillespie and aide Dan Senor. The campaign announced in a press release that the announcement would come Saturday morning.
Beth Myers turned off her cell phone. The Ryan family went to sleep.
The next morning, Ryan was officially on the GOP ticket.