With Mitt Romney’s campaign for president nearly in tatters, he huddled with his senior advisers on Wednesday morning, jotting notes with pen and paper, to go over his options.
By the time the meeting ended, he seemed to want to stay in the race. His campaign went ahead with voter-turnout calls in Kansas and Washington for caucuses on Saturday, and priced out what it would take to compete in primaries next week in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
His son Tagg, a senior campaign adviser, urged him to continue, but by evening, Mr. Romney had decided to pull out. He then phoned each of his sons individually to break the news.
Another son, Matt Romney, said: “I just couldn’t be anything but absolutely proud of him. I’m so proud of his fight.”
If Mr. Romney’s campaign were condensed to one of his trademark PowerPoint presentations, it would have had all the bullet points foretelling success: a multimillionaire candidate willing to relinquish his fortune to run, an unsettled Republican field and a candidate whose championing of conservative positions could motivate the party’s base.
Yet Mr. Romney’s advisers acknowledged Thursday an array of tactical missteps and miscalculations. Perhaps most significantly, they conceded that they had failed to overcome doubts about Mr. Romney’s authenticity as they sought to position him as the most electable conservative in the race, a jarring contrast to his more moderate record as governor of Massachusetts. And during the January nominating contests, as his opponents attacked his shifting on issues, polls showed his favorability ratings plummeting.
Mr. Romney spent more than $35 million of his own money trying to get himself elected, but his campaign faced challenges from the start, some from obstacles beyond his control.
Suspicions about Mr. Romney’s Mormon faith consumed his campaign early on, only to seem to fade from view. But his advisers and outside experts agree that the unease ultimately helped pave the way for Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist pastor, to emerge from the backbench of the Republican field to win the Iowa caucuses, a central, costly goal of Mr. Romney’s strategy. Then Mr. Romney’s aides failed to anticipate the collapse of Rudolph W. Giuliani’s candidacy, leaving no one to halt Senator John McCain’s resurgence among moderate Republicans and independents.
“You had a Rudy Giuliani who wound up not being really competitive, and you had a candidate who emerged on the right,” said Carl Forti, the Romney campaign’s political director. “When a candidate emerged on the right and with no one to check McCain on the left, it gave him more room to grow, and we were in the middle.”
But in an election cycle in which authenticity is an overriding concern among voters, the perception of Mr. Romney remaking himself into a Reagan-like figure through his positioning on issues like abortion rights and gun control exposed him to biting, often mocking attacks from his rivals, who were almost universal in their scorn of him. His fellow Republicans used the flip-flopping accusations to reframe everything he did. Even in the final hours of Mr. Romney’s candidacy, Mr. McCain was running advertising suggesting Mr. Romney had shifted radically in his view of Ronald Reagan.
The authenticity issue was a problem his advisers recognized early on. As Mr. Romney was laying the groundwork for his run back in 2006, Alex Castellanos, one of the campaign’s chief media strategists, put together a 77-slide PowerPoint presentation, first reported by The Boston Globe, which listed some of Mr. Romney’s vulnerabilities, including the perception of him as an ideological panderer, as well as his Mormonism and his inexperience in military affairs.
But his advisers perceived there was a gap in the field for an electable conservative and pounced on that opportunity in recasting Mr. Romney’s image. They believed that he could overcome the more moderate views he had espoused in the past as governor of Massachusetts and while running for the Senate in 1994 against Edward M. Kennedy by being up front about his most obvious change on abortion. They also spotlighted Mr. Romney’s family, arguing he lived his values and that examining his beliefs up close would reveal that his inner convictions were conservative.
“Ultimately, we thought if we put everything into the crucible, people would say, ‘Wait, this guy is conservative, and he’s honest and straightforward,’ ” said Alex Gage, Mr. Romney’s director of strategy.
But Mr. Gage acknowledged that in Mr. Romney’s rush to beat back the attacks questioning his conservative credentials, he may have swung too far in the other direction, ultimately taking some of the most-pronounced stands against illegal immigration and social issues.
“Maybe we overcompensated,” Mr. Gage said.
Competing against far better-known candidates, the campaign’s strategy from the beginning was to “win early and often,” backed by an unprecedented early advertising strategy that resulted in the campaign spending more than $30 million on television commercials.
One of the campaign’s fears all along was that someone would outflank them on the right. Some called this imaginary candidate, “Huckafred,” a reference to Mr. Huckabee and former Senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee, who many perceived would be a savior to conservatives.
Mr. Huckabee’s sudden emergence in November still caught many of his advisers by surprise, although Gentry Collins, Mr. Romney’s Iowa state director, had sounded an early alarm about him.
There had been some divisions within the campaign in the fall about whether to run negative commercials or even mailings against opponents. But Mr. Romney’s advisers ultimately came to a consensus that they needed to go after Mr. Huckabee directly. The result was a blitz of “contrast” advertisements that attacked him on a range of issues.
Yet even with a textbook turnout operation in Iowa, in which the campaign exceeded its targets for getting its supporters to the polls, Mr. Huckabee beat Mr. Romney handily as evangelicals turned out to vote in record-breaking numbers.
It was at a meeting at a hotel conference room in Portsmouth, N.H., the following day, in which the campaign sought to rebound, that Mr. Romney blurted out the slogan the campaign would adopt for the rest of his run, that “Washington is broken.” He even began jotting down a “to-do” list of items that needed to get done in Washington.
The campaign seized on the utterance, and scrambled to get banners made up for the next day. When Mr. Romney showed up at an Ask Mitt Anything forum at a school in Derry, N.H., he was flanked by the “Washington is Broken” sign that would become a staple at his events.
Meanwhile, the campaign was also attacking Mr. McCain over the airwaves, something some of Mr. Romney’s advisers said afterward may not have been such a good idea, given Mr. McCain’s high favorability ratings across the board in New Hampshire.
The attack advertisements paved the way for a devastating counterattack from the McCain campaign, and what many of Mr. Romney’s advisers believe was the most effective commercial of the election cycle, a negative advertisement that cited quotes from newspaper editorials to make the case that Mr. Romney was a fake.
In the end, even though Mr. Romney’s aides contended he found his voice in New Hampshire, he wound up losing the state as well.
Brewing behind the scenes was a rancorous dispute over advertising strategy, pitting Mr. Castellanos, who had been the quarterback of Mr. Romney’s ad team, against Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer, advertising men who joined the campaign in the fall from Mr. McCain’s campaign after it stalled.
Mr. Romney had always relished vigorous disagreement during meetings to ensure opposing views were heard, but after New Hampshire it was Mr. Stevens and Mr. Schriefer who won out, with Mr. Castellanos largely sidelined.
Mr. Romney rebounded with a convincing victory in Michigan, aided by the growing economic jitters gripping the country, which played nicely into his business background. He was also able to emphasize his personal roots in Michigan, where he was born and raised and his father, George, was a popular governor.
Florida would become the site of a pivotal showdown with Mr. McCain. Mr. Romney’s advisers contend he was winning the state until Mr. McCain scored the last-minute endorsements of Senator Mel Martinez and Gov. Charlie Crist.
Mr. Romney tried to shift gears again heading into the crush of states voting last Tuesday, portraying his battle with Mr. McCain as a fight for the future of the Republican Party.
The campaign chose to make its stand in California, spending $1.7 million in advertising there, as well as a host of states holding caucuses or conventions, and hoped to pick off other primary states, like Georgia or Missouri.
After Mr. Romney’s advisers retreated to their Boston headquarters on Tuesday night to watch the returns, the news got progressively worse as the evening wore on.
Nevertheless, Mr. Romney was his usual buoyant self the next day when he showed up with his wife, Ann. He huddled with his senior advisers in a conference room, where they laid out the reality that he faced almost insurmountable odds.
“We had very kind of frank discussion,” Mr. Schriefer said. “His magic number was very high, and McCain’s was very low.
But there was discussion about how Mr. Romney might be able to prevent Mr. McCain from reaching the requisite number of delegates as well and take the fight all the way to the convention.
Afterward, Mr. Romney delivered a rousing pep talk to his campaign staff on the first floor and left to mull over his decision.
That evening, Tagg Romney, who lives on the same street as his parents, came over and the elder Romney told his son he had decided to pull out, citing the importance of uniting the party around a candidate with the nation at war.
“Most of us wanted to keep battling,” Tagg Romney said.
Adam Nagourney contributed reporting.