Romney Announcement Caught Press Off Guard

A relaxed scene at the Norfolk Marriott. Norfolk police rousted a stakeout.

Romney talks to reporters on his campaign plane in February. Gerald Herbert / AP

NORFOLK, Virginia — On Friday night much of Mitt Romney’s campaign staff was settling in for bed when urgent calls rang out from Boston to key aides — the “Gov” has picked his running mate.

A few minutes later, at 11:06, Romney communications director Gail Gitcho tweeted that Romney would announce his running mate today. At 11:08 p.m., an email blaring news hit the inboxes of 35 or so reporters accompanying Romney on his weekend visit to this Virginia port town: “MITT ROMNEY ANNOUNCES VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE IN NORFOLK SATURDAY.”

The email capped a day of off-and-on rumors and conspiracy theories among the press corps about when Romney would make his move, and a swirl around Ryan in the conservative press that traveling reporters were unable to match.

Few of their theories pointed to the next morning, in part because, earlier Friday, the Romney campaign had lured reporters into a false sense of security. Two top aides, Eric Fehrnstrom and Kevin Madden, dined with two reporters at the hotel restaurant, Shula’s 347 Grill. Strategist Stuart Stevens held court at the bar, telling war stories from the 2004 Bush campaign to several others. The campaign seemed to be relaxing and bracing for a busy week, and reporters had every incentive to rest as well: Madden had warned on Friday afternoon that there would be a briefing at 7:30 a.m. Saturday.

Some reporters were finishing up their last round at the wood-paneled bar of the Norfolk Waterside Marriott. Others were asleep; at least one had just taken an Ambien.

Indeed, Romney had made his decision on Aug. 1, the day after his foreign trip, according to a campaign aide. He and Ryan subsequently met to discuss his taking the job — but no one in the press caught wind of any of it.

As soon as the news of an announcement broke, the traveling press scrambled to confirm the news. But the Romney aides who remained available appeared not to know, and his senior staff had vanished. Staffers, some of them finding out first from the press release, filed down to the hotel lobby, some still pulling on clothing. Most worked through the night to make final preparations for the big day.

Reporters also swarmed the lobby to try to spot any campaign aides, or just maybe, the running mate. Then it was the rushed walk to the event site in the shadow of the USS Wisconsin several blocks away, dodging police and advance staffers in a frantic search for any evidence that Paul Ryan would be joining Romney today. After campaign staffers complained, a Norfolk police officer threatened a group of reporters with arrest if they didn’t stop looking around.

Ultimately nearly a dozen reporters sprawled out on the sidewalk by the entrance to the complex, hoping — in vain — for a glimpse at anything. After a half hour, at 2:15, they gave up on guard-duty in search of a few hours of sleep.

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