Up up and away: A flight on Mitt Force 1

The long journey towards the White House seldom offers a chance to see a high-flying candidate speak candidly – with no script or stage management. But there is one place where guards are dropped... David Usborne climbs aboard
  • @dusborne

The rolling stairs to the Boeing jet are in place and we, the travelling press who have disembarked minutes earlier from the rear, 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. (If it's Wednesday, it's South Carolina.) 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.

The folks running the Mitt Romney campaign are smarter. It's why he is in jeans, always. And it's why that sodden roll of carpeting was gone before he came out.

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. Still, no campaign can control everything (and no self-respecting group of reporters is going to play ball all the way).

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 vital 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 with snazzy campaign livery down the sides. So ours was just rented for the day from Miami Air International. The plane was kind of underwhelming from the outside. As for the tail number, it hardly mattered since this was the only aircraft larger than a wheelbarrow at the hidden airfield from which we left.

Flying presidential candidates around can be hazardous for flight attendants. Six elections ago I travelled half the continent 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 any particular day on scraps of paper pinned up in the toilets.

Our crew was ready. A usual day for them, they explained, was flying American football teams from one game to the next. Recently, they had a cabin full of models from Victoria's Secret. After very big men and very skinny women, a few reporters and an ex-governor from Massachusetts weren't going to be a problem. Mr Romney did 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 even before take-off. That way, we wouldn't be in a scrum around him in the aisle when the plane hits an air pocket at 37,000ft.

After remarking on the comforts of the plane (outside may look tatty, but inside it's all wide-seat, business-class plush) he describes watching the early returns roll in with his wife, children and grandchildren the night before at his hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire. "It was like Christmas Day," he tells us. "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 and being themselves, 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, lay of their workers and close then down.

Glimpses of the inner-Romney are rare. He trades an inside joke with us when we ask about his skills on two wheels after an early rally at a custom motorcycle shop in Greenville, 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 and certainly applies to what he goes on to say about the attacks on him related to Bain.

"We've understood for a long time that the Obama people would come after free enterprise," he says.

"I'm a little surprised to see Newt Gingrich as the first witness to the prosecution." If they had had time, they would have focus-group tested that primetime-ready line before he said it.

And his aides are similarly disciplined. Eric Fehrnstrom, a political advisor, was prodded by this reporter 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 not a comment on the people of Europe, it's a comment on the fact that some governments in Europe have brought their fiscal houses into disarray," Mr Fehrnstrom says.

"He is not using Europe as a bogeyman. He is using Europe to wave the flag as a warning to the world that we all have to act responsibly."

Mr Romney has other useful powers. 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. Even his elder brother Scott, who is flying with him, is ignored after take-off. The candidate's wife, Ann, and their children are off the campaign trail after the rigours of appearing at rally after rally in New Hampshire. Nor does he 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 does not avail of himself of the free alcohol being served. ("Look, free booze on Mormon Air," one reporter texts to another. Some of us prefer Air Mitt or Fly Mittens.)

A foreign reporter on board is spied reclining in his seat 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; bad behaviour by a reporter in flight is as likely to be caught on a camera phone and relayed to the rest of the world via Twitter these days as is any "misstep" by a candidate.

The naughtiest we manage is exchanging clichéd headlines about the candidate heading into turbulence, headwinds and a lashing by the elements – for hailstones read Newt Gingrich – in South Carolina, as our plane, which is surely of a certain age, begins to rattle in heavy thunderclouds on its way to Columbia. That and sneaking a gin somewhere over the Maryland/Virginia state line.

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. Mr Romney's biggest danger here in the shoals of South Carolina maybe his emerging image as being part of the 1 per cent exploiting the working-class masses. He has been called a "vulture capitalist" by Governor Rick Perry and likened by others to Gordon Gekko, that celluloid symbol of unbridled greed.

Indeed, later we are met by protesters with cigars and fake dollar bills waving "Greed is Good" placards advertising a fictitious Romney-Gekko 2012 presidential ticket. Maybe an economy seat for Mr Romney on a commercial airliner would have been safer. Or a Lear Jet without any of us on board.

But at least they 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.