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How did they do it? Romney campaign explains how it kept the biggest secret in politics

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks with senior adviser Beth Myers aboard his campaign plane before taking off Aug. 2 in Centennial, Colo.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks with senior adviser Beth Myers aboard his campaign plane before taking off Aug. 2 in Centennial, Colo.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON & JANESVILLE, Wisc. -- Mitt Romney's months-long vice presidential selection process came to a close one week ago in a dining room in suburban Massachusetts, where Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, dressed casually to avoid detection during commercial flights, told Romney he would accept the GOP candidate's offer to join the ticket.

For the Romney campaign, Ryan's meeting with Romney, in the dining room of chief vetter Beth Myers last Sunday, was the result of a process that began in April, and wound through several secrecy-cloaked months without major leaks before culminating in Saturday's rollout in Virginia.

Even the rollout was an example of both a flawlessly executed bit of secrecy and stagecraft and improvisation when events did not go as the campaign planned. Myers told reporters the Romney campaign originally planned to announce the pick Friday in New Hampshire, but with Ryan attending a memorial service for the victims of a shooting at a Sikh temple in his district, the plans were changed to Saturday.

All of this information was a closely guarded secret until Saturday night, when Myers, in charge of VP vetting, offered reporters a glimpse inside the process.

The vet
“I had one directive: The candidates must be qualified to take office on day one,” Myers said of her appointment to head the VP search on April 16. “Around May 1 we created a short list.”

Throughout the process, Myers said, one thing was clear: "This was Mitt’s decision.”

Myers chose not to disclose a full list of who was considered for the No. 2 spot, but many of the names have leaked out: former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio were vetted, as were Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Portman and McDonnell received calls Friday night to inform them they were not the pick.

Myers told reporters she established a system, approved by Romney, to quietly vet candidates after asking if they were interested in the job. A team of lawyers worked with Myers in a secure room of the campaign's Boston headquarters. No copies were made of any documents, and everything was locked in a safe when the team left at night. No documents were allowed out of the room.

Romney tries to define Ryan before Democrats do

Included in the data collected by Myers and her team: congressional voting records, an exhaustive questionnaire and "several years" of tax returns -- she did not say how many. Romney has come under fire from Democrats and many in the media for his refusal to release more than two years of returns, despite reports he released several times that amount when he himself was vetted as a possible ticket-mate for John McCain in 2008.

Throughout May and June, Myers and her team pored over data, presenting information to Romney, who discussed his thinking with a small group of advisers, including the campaign manager, senior strategists and close aides. When the Romney campaign convened a retreat for top donors with major GOP figures in Utah in mid-June, Myers met with several contenders to clear up lingering issues and ask follow-up questions.

“He [Romney] talked with a lot of people,” Myers said, adding that she felt it was important to keep her own opinion to herself. “I did not share my thoughts on who I thought it should be”

The vetting of Ryan – or at least when he began to know about it -- lasted nearly six weeks. Just days before the June 5 gubernatorial recall election in the Badger State, the congressman’s staff started compiling hundreds of pages of documents to submit to the Romney campaign, such as public statements and op-ed pieces.

Ryan never let on publicly whether he was being vetted or not throughout the summer months. He always dismissed questions surrounding his VP possibilities. That, sources say, played into Ryan’s strategy: keep expectations of VP possibilities incredibly low and just be a team player.

On July 2, the day she was famously photographed in Wolfeboro, N.H., meeting with Romney on his back porch, Myers presented her boss with completed dossiers on the final candidates for him to absorb.

On Aug. 1, when Romney returned from his week-long foreign trip, he was ready to make a decision. He met with Myers in her office in Boston and placed a call to Ryan. Could they meet in person for a discussion?

The offer
By August, reporters had begun to whittle down the short list of possible candidates and to keep a close eye on the top contenders. Despite this, on Aug. 5, Ryan quietly slipped out of his home and, dressed casually and wearing a hat and sunglasses to obscure his appearance, drove to Chicago, where he boarded a flight to Hartford, Conn.

There, an unlikely emissary was waiting for him in a rented car: Myers’ 19-year-old son, Curt, who picked Ryan up and drove him from Hartford to Brookline, Mass., and his mother’s dining room, where Romney was waiting, having been driven down from Wolfeboro that morning by Secret Service agents.

Obama gets his target with pick of Ryan

Romney described the meeting to reporters traveling aboard his plane Saturday night.

"We talked about the campaign and how it would be run and talked about how we’d work together if we get the White House," Romney said. "What the relationship would be, how we’d interact and be involved in important decisions. But we talked about our families, what this meant for them, what kind of challenge it meant -- those are the topics we discussed.”

Ryan also met with a handful of top Romney staffers, and when Romney officially extended the offer to join the ticket, the seven-term congressman was thrilled, if not surprised.

"By the time we met in person I kind of knew it was going to happen, and I was very humbled," Ryan told reporters Saturday. "It was the biggest honor I’ve ever been given in my life.... I Love this country dearly, and I feel we have an opportunity to fix things once and for all."

When the shooting happened Sunday at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc., Ryan handled the fallout from Massachusetts, never telling his staff exactly where he was. If it wasn’t for the unforeseen tragedy that took place in Wisconsin’s 1st District that day, Ryan’s staff likely never would have known their boss was out of state at all. He flew back that night, undetected.

The House Budget Committee chairman kept his schedule intact for the entire week leading up to the announcement including spending three days filming commercials for his congressional re-election campaign. Ryan never let out his secret to his campaign staffers, who were working 12-hour days with him on the ads. They will begin airing next month in his district – in Wisconsin, you can appear on the ballot as both a vice presidential candidate and running for a congressional seat.

Ryan spent the middle of the week traveling in northwest Wisconsin stumping for local candidates – all along knowing his life was about to change. But these long car rides gave him plenty of private time to speak with his longtime friend and chief of staff about his new role.

Escape from Wisconsin
Keeping the Romney/Ryan pairing a secret for the next week proved to be an Olympian challenge. A boomlet of support for the Ryan candidacy drew increased scrutiny, and reporters such as NBC's Alex Moe were staking out Ryan's home, chatting with the candidate and his family and keeping tabs on their movement, lest they slip away again undetected.

Myers said she thought Moe might be close to solving the mystery.

“She did a great job,” Myers said of Moe, whom Ryan likened to a family member in a recent interview. “We knew we had to be very diligent in throwing her off the scent.”

And diligent they were, moving Ryan's family undetected while he was attending the Friday memorial service. Ryan told reporters earlier in the week his family was planning a trip to Colorado, departing on Saturday, so packing seemed unremarkable.

Early Friday morning, the congressman’s trusted chief of staff, Andy Speth, arrived in his red pickup to take Ryan to the memorial service, with reporters in tow.

Ryan returned home in the early afternoon and went inside through the back as he was locked out of his side door, telling reporters who stood watching on the sidewalk he must have forgotten his keys. That would be the last time anyone saw the congressman in Janesville, because sometime after 3 p.m., he exited his home into the back yard (where reporters couldn’t see) and went into the woods.

"I grew up in those woods. The house I grew up in backs up to the house I live in, so I know those woods like the back of my hand.  So it wasn’t too hard to walk through them. So I just went out my back door, went through the gully in the woods I grew up playing in. I walked past the tree that has my own tree fort I built back there," Ryan said.

Escaping via the woods isn’t something new for Ryan, either. It is a tactic the congressman has been forced to use before due to protesters in front of his house. Ryan is used to cutting through the bushes.

Waiting a couple of hundred yards on the other side: Speth, who took Ryan and his family to an airport in neighboring Illinois, where a private plane would whisk them to Virginia.

Back at the house, Ryan's sister-in-law, intentionally left behind, turned out the lights just as news was beginning to leak that Romney would announce his pick Saturday, turning the eyes of the world on the town of Janesville. 

When Moe knocked on the congressman's door that night, after NBC News confirmed he would be the vice presidential nominee, no one answered. Ryan was already hundreds of miles away.

The rollout
While Ryan was on his way to meet once again with the man at the top of the ticket, Romney was busy on the phones, informing other candidates from the short list that they had not been chosen. Portman and McDonnell received calls that night and may not have been the only ones. Romney had already called Pawlenty, a tireless advocate for the nominee and a staff favorite, on Monday.

When the Ryans landed in Elizabeth City, N.C., an hour south of Norfolk, they were whisked away to a Fairfield Inn hotel -- again, by Myers' son Curt -- and met by a handful of top Romney aides. The family ate takeout from Applebee’s with Myers, and worked on speech prep. Then, Myers said, as the campaign sent out an advisory telling the world that Romney would announce his choice the next morning, Myers turned off her phone.

Ryan placed a phone call to his mother around midnight to let her know he was in fact being tapped as Romney’s right-hand man. He called his siblings the next morning just hours before he gave the biggest speech of his life.

Ryan and his family loaded into two cars for Norfolk first thing Saturday and were driven to the USS Wisconsin, the site of the announcement. The rest is history.