TAMPA, FL — I have been traveling like a mad man for a long time. But nothing compares to Monday, the eve of the Florida Republican primary . I got the chance to be a part of the traveling press corps and follow Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney everywhere he went. For a political junkie like myself, it was like living a dream.
As we covered hundreds of miles, leapfrogging from Jacksonville to Tampa and beyond, I had one goal: to ask Romney about Florida’s new voter registration laws and other issues facing young Americans. The former Massachusetts governor hadn’t taken a question from the press in more than a week. Still, we were rock stars — well, political ones anyway.
After an early-morning rally at a local heavy equipment seller, we hustled to the Jacksonville airport, where I stood on the tarmac as I was patted down by security. Then I stood in awe as the possible future president got the same treatment.
I was told not to film it, but I had to. What if TSA found a gun in Romney’s belt? One of Romney’s guys who knows me (and knows I am sometimes up to no good) yelled, “Jenks! Not the TSA!” So, I pretended I was filming a bird and apologized.
“That must be weird,” I said to the TSA agent afterwards.
“I’ve done a lot weirder,” he replied. I’m still not sure what that meant.
Once we were on the plane, I tried to get as close to Romney as possible so I could get my question in, but I was told to sit toward the back. An NPR reporter told me I could sit as far up as the emergency exit row, but maybe he was just hazing the new kid.
I was enjoying some cherries, cheese and crackers provided by Team Romney when the press corps suddenly stood up and the lights turned off. I thought to myself, “I must be on the wrong plane, right?” That’s when they all started singing “Happy Birthday.”
The next thing I saw as I recorded this odd scene was the governor delicately walking alone down the dark aisle carrying a birthday cake with candles lighting his face. His expression said, “Why the heck am I carrying a huge, wonky cake as a plane full of photographers capture my every move?” But he seemed relaxed.
For one strange moment, I wondered if this was the future president. When he laughed, we all laughed, and it all seemed kind of normal — celebrating a birthday. But after he cracked a few jokes and doled out chips to everyone, the plane took off, and for the remained of the day I could only see Romney from afar.
“Does Governor Romney do that often?” I asked a German reporter as he chowed on a roast beef sandwich provided by the campaign.
He smiled. “You must have come on a special day.”
On the plane and bus everyone does their own thing. They are friendly and some joke around, but mostly they sleep, read books on Romney, go through their notes and type on a variety of devices to get their stories in on time. They seem pretty resigned to getting just a few tidbits of actual news on any given day.
The day’s final event was at a retirement community called The Villages. As we approached I joked with an ABC reporter that this would probably be the low-key event of the day — just the governor speaking with some senior citizens. She laughed at me.
When we stopped, there were barricades up — a lot of them. It was loud. More than 1,000 seniors filled the picture perfect town square as giant video screens rolled footage of visits from past presidential candidates and dignitaries.
By the time Romney took the stage, after just a few events, I knew his speech word-for-word. The opening jabs at Newt Gingrich, a recitation of his favorite verses from “America the Beautiful,” and the same story about the cross-country trips his family took when he was a child and ample fire aimed at President Obama’s policies.
He finished with a terse comment on how our current president has been reckless, anti-military and anti-business. A few reporters and I agreed that the only story breaking at this point was that Romney actually sang “America the Beautiful” this time around.
And that was it. The day before the biggest primary we have had so far, I celebrated a birthday, went to a concert at a nursing home and learned the words to “America the Beautiful.” Sometimes this journey hasn’t felt serious enough. I am not always sure that I am covering anything of substance, but hopefully I will return with stories bigger than a TSA pat-down or a nursing home mosh pit.
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