Denver — The elements of Mitt Romney’s Rocky Mountain rout were hatched weeks ago in Vermont’s Green Mountains. In early September, Romney slowed down his campaign schedule and retreated with a small group of advisers to the home of Kerry Healey, his former lieutenant governor. Ohio senator Rob Portman, a trusted ally, joined Stuart Stevens, Eric Fehrnstrom, Bob White, and a handful of other Romney confidants. They spent days holding mock debates, and nights reviewing President Obama’s stylistic tics. When they needed a break, they roamed around Healey’s secluded estate, which is 100 miles south of Burlington, Vt. But mostly they talked, over hot chocolate and coffee, about how best to communicate Romney’s message.
Portman says Romney’s willingness to fully commit to the prep was striking. Day after day, he’d get up early, exercise, and then join the team for hours of work. Advisers certainly played a role, but according to Portman, it was the candidate who drove his advisers. Even when he had a busy week of campaigning, Romney would always find time to study or hold a brief mock debate. “It was all him,” Portman tells me. “Honestly, I’ve spent a lot of time with Mitt Romney for the past month or so, and what I saw on stage is who he is. He’s smart, he’s articulate, and he’s got a big heart.”
During the opening prep sessions, the group quickly came to a consensus: At the podium, Romney would be forceful, nearly as assertive as he was in Healey’s living room. His advisers have always admired Romney’s ability to peel apart arguments in private, and they encouraged him to do the same at the debate, with a little polish. The goal was to overwhelm the president with liveliness and information, to force him to confront the messy details of his economic and fiscal record. The strategy, sources say, clicked with Romney for two reasons: He did not want to spend hours tinkering with his mannerisms, and he wanted to focus on internalizing data. He’d take advice on his voice, his posture, and the rest, but he wanted his prep time to be a policy workshop.