DAYTON, Ohio — The last-minute decision by Romney high command Monday to suspend politics while Sandy raged sent aides in Ohio scrambling to convert a scheduled victory rally into an apolitical "storm relief event" — a process that tested the campaign's agility and left a few threads of partisanship inadvertently hanging.
On Monday morning, Romney's local team in Dayton was eagerly preparing to host the candidate the following day. A high school gym had been reserved, a stage had been rented, and a pair of celebrity guests — country singer Randy Owen and NASCAR driver Richard Petty — had been booked to give the event some B-list heft.
Then, a little before noon, communications director Gail Gitcho announced the cancellation of "all events currently scheduled" for Tuesday. The superstorm that forecasters had been warning about for days had picked up steam, and people throughout the Northeast were now bracing for the worst. In a statement, Gitcho said the decision to cancel campaign events had been made "out of sensitivity to the millions of Americans in the path of Hurricane Sandy."
But Boston wasn't quite ready to lose a full day of swing state visibility with a week left in the race. So, after some deliberation, the campaign decided to use their existing venue in Ohio to stage a makeshift and nonpartisan humanitarian project. It would be a way for Romney to show leadership — and get on the local news — without looking craven or opportunistic.
The cryptic advisory went out to press several hours later, announcing the time and location of a "storm relief event" on Tuesday. As Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, Romney's campaign jet carried the candidate, along with his staff and traveling press corps, back to Ohio after an afternoon rally in Davenport, Iowa.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Dayton, aides were working feverishly to depoliticize the planned event. Campaign signs were removed from the premises, long rows of folding tables were set up, and logistics were painstakingly arranged to accomodate physical donations.
"It took the production company and event staff on-site some time to ensure that it was converted into a space which was suitable for the needs of a relief effort," said one staffer who was there.
The plan was for supporters to bring hurricane relief supplies to the event and then deliver the bags of canned goods, packages of diapers, and cases of water bottles to the candidate, who would be perched behind a table along with a slew of volunteers and his Ohio right-hand man, Senator Rob Portman. To complete the project and photo op, Romney would lead his crew in carrying the goods out of the gymnasium and into the Penske rental truck parked outside.
But the last-minute nature of the call for donations left some in the campaign concerned that they would end up with an empty truck. So the night before the event, campaign aides went to a local Wal-Mart and spent $5,000 on granola bars, canned food, and diapers to put on display while they waited for donations to come in, according to one staffer. (The campaign confirmed that it "did donate supplies to the relief effort," but would not specify how much it spent.)
At more senior levels of the campaign, careful consideration was being given to the tone of the program, officials said. Romney would scrap his normal stump speech and replace it with brief, optimistic remarks on the spirit of volunteerism. And Owen would still perform with his band, but he would refrain from cheerleading his candidate, and instead talk about the devastation he saw in Alabama after tornadoes tore through his home state last year.
When showtime arrived the following morning, local campaign staffers were pleasantly surprised by their supporters' generosity.
"We were incredibly pleased with the outpouring of support we received from volunteers and generous contributors from southwest and central Ohio," said Christopher Maloney, Romney's Ohio spokesman, adding, "We’re pleased that Ohio could play a role, albeit a minor one, in the relief effort."
But the event had its hitches. When reporters arrived on site ahead of the candidate, they were given press badges describing the event as a "victory rally" — a result, one aide told BuzzFeed, of the event's last-minute repurposing. He said the badges were printed Monday morning, before the change had been announced.
And shortly thereafter, the two large projector screens near the ceiling lit up with a glossy, 10-minute biographical video about the candidate, one that debuted at the Republican National Convention. A state campaign official blamed "someone from the audiovisual team" for playing the video without the campaign's permission.
But reporters, many of whom had spent the night before glued to hotel television sets watching their hometown of New York get ravaged by the hurricane, were sensitive to the hints of politics at the event and took to Twitter to voice their skepticism.
By the time Romney's motorcade rolled up to the high school, the projector screens were displaying Red Cross donation information, and grocery bags stuffed with supplies were piled up in a corner of the gym.
Romney kept his speech brief, expressing concern for the victims of the storm, while trying to keep the mood of the event upbeat. Standing on a small platform, he recalled a time in high school when he and his classmates were charged with cleaning up a football field covered in garbage.
“The person who was responsible for organizing the effort said, 'Just line up along the yard lines,'" the candidate said. "'You go between the goal line and the 10-yard line. And the next person, between 10 and 20, and then just walk through and do your lane. And if everybody cleans their line, why, we’ll be able to get the job done.'"
"And so today," he went on. "We are cleaning one lane, if you will."
The crowd of about 2,000 erupted in applause.
But even as Romney, clad in blue jeans and rolled-up sleeves, hustled around his area of the gym, shaking hands, thanking supporters, and stacking cases of bottled water on top of each other, signs of stagecraft remained.
As supporters lined up to greet the candidate, a young volunteer in a Romney/Ryan T-shirt stood near the tables, his hands cupped around his mouth, shouting, "You need a donation to get in line!"
Empty-handed supporters pled for entrance, with one woman asking, "What if we dropped off our donations up front?"
The volunteer gestured toward a pile of groceries conveniently stacked near the candidate. "Just grab something," he said.
Two teenage boys retrieved a jar of peanut butter each, and got in line. When it was their turn, they handed their "donations" to Romney. He took them, smiled, and offered an earnest "Thank you."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.