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Up, up and away with Romney's campaign

The long journey to the White House seldom offers a chance to see a high-flying candidate speak candidly. By David Usborne

The stairs to the Boeing jet are in place and we, the travelling press who have disembarked minutes earlier, are waiting to watch the candidate as he emerges smiling, ready to do battle in the next stage of the long procession of state-by-state primaries. Then there is a burst of activity to our left: the red carpet on the tarmac is half in a puddle. Get rid of it now.

Every campaign is 1 per cent policy-peddling, 99 per cent stagecraft. When Jon Huntsman launched his campaign months ago he did it in front of the Statue of Liberty, but the TV cameras were positioned in such a way that they couldn't see the lady and her torch.

There would be little point without us in attendance, of course. The voters at the rallies – in less than an hour Mr Romney is speaking in a packed historic hall on the outskirts of Columbia and picking up babies, lots of them – are props for the images and the stories that we snap, write and publish. But no campaign can control everything.

The lengths to which they go are impressive. Journalists selected to travel on the airborne leg this week from New Hampshire, where Mr Romney had triumphed, to South Carolina were given all the operational details well in advance. Our plane would be a 737-400. The flight would last two hours and 12 minutes and in case of confusion the plane's tail number would be N753MA. Time change: None. Food: Snacks.

These are early days in the 2012 race and even Mr Romney, wealthy as he is, doesn't have his own plane yet. So ours is just rented for the day. Flying presidential candidates around can be hazardous for flight attendants. Six elections ago I travelled with Bill Clinton and aides would take to sitting on dinner trays and tobogganing down the aisle during take-off. Flying with Hillary Clinton in 2008, reporters would scribble bets on what colour trouser suit she would be wearing on scraps of paper pinned up in the toilets.

Our crew is ready. A usual day for them, they explain, is flying American football teams from one game to the next. Recently, they had a cabin full of models from Victoria's Secret. A few reporters and an ex-governor from Massachusetts aren't going to be a problem. And Mr Romney does his bit to help. After striding to the plane from the private aviation terminal at Hanscom Field in northern Massachusetts – he walks like he talks, erect and clipped – he decides to get the part where he talks to the travelling reporters done before take-off. That way, we won't be around him in the aisle when the plane hits an air pocket.

After remarking on the comforts of the plane (inside it's all wide-seat, business-class plush) he describes watching the early returns roll in with his family the night before at his hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire. "It was like Christmas Day," he says. "Each new report coming in was like opening another present."

Every reporter wants to travel inside the bubble of a candidate for those moments when they are talking off script, maybe when they are especially tired, angry or happy. This week, Mr Romney could have been any of those, having sunk the competition in New Hampshire after days of being attacked over his years at Bain Capital, when, his critics allege, he bought struggling companies only to strip them bare.

Glimpses of the inner-Romney are rare. He trades a joke with us when we ask about his skills on two wheels after an early rally at a custom motorcycle shop in North Carolina. He mumbles about having ridden a bike one of his sons once owned, but you just know he is fibbing. Then, with a wide laugh, he asks: "Should I put on a helmet maybe, Dukakis style?" (Michael Dukakis's presidential bid in 1988 unravelled when he was ridiculed for wearing a helmet on a military tank). But most of what Mr Romney utters has been thought through in advance. That is probably true even of the Christmas-presents remark.

His aides are similarly disciplined. Eric Fehrnstrom, a political advisor, is prodded about why Mr Romney repeatedly holds up Europe and its welfare system as symbolising everything he doesn't want for America (and that Barack Obama, apparently does). "It's a comment on the fact that some governments in Europe have brought their fiscal houses into disarray," he says.

"He is using Europe to wave the flag as a warning to the world that we all have to act responsibly."

While Mr Fehrnstrom accepts reporters into the seat beside him to explain the follies of their stories to them, the candidate, who is nearly 65, after all, slides deep into the leather folds of 6F and snoozes. He does not appear to take any notice of the trays of cold cuts, cheese, asparagus tips and chocolate-dipped strawberries that float by him in the aisle at regular intervals. He also does not partake in the free alcohol being served. ("Look, free booze on Mormon Air," one reporter texts another. Some of us prefer Air Mitt or Fly Mittens.)

One reporter is spied reading a ragged paperback copy of the gonzo-journalism classic about following presidential candidates, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, by the late Hunter S Thompson, which depicts the rear rows of campaign planes where the reporters hung out as a kind of zoo best to avoid. Those days of raucous mischief – even those of tray-sledding – are mostly gone. The naughtiest we manage was exchanging clichéd headlines about the candidate heading into turbulence, headwinds and a lashing by the elements in South Carolina as our plane, which is surely of a certain age, begins to rattle. That and sneaking a gin somewhere over Maryland.

Still, there is one much larger possible slip up here. There are a few of us wondering about the wisdom of putting us and the candidate on luxurious transport this week of all weeks. Indeed, later we are met by protesters with cigars and fake dollar bills waving "Greed is Good" placards.

But the aides manage the quick rearrangement of the furniture upon our landing in Columbia. Red carpets are for celebrities and rich people. They are also for heads of government and a presumption of victory is something else that must be avoided at all costs. Once more, stagecraft is everything.