SALT LAKE CITY—If this is Mitt Romney's darkest hour in his race for the presidency, he was determined not to show it.
A day after he was forced to defend unscripted remarks caught on camera at a May fundraiser where he suggested President Barack Obama's supporters have a "victim" mentality and are dependent on government handouts, Romney boarded his campaign plane in California on Tuesday morning as though nothing were amiss.
Dressed in a dark blue suit, Romney grinned and laughed with his campaign staff, perhaps knowing that yards away members of his traveling press corps were documenting his every move. Scribes were on the lookout for any clue that might define how the candidate is feeling amid a controversy that some Republicans have openly worried could fatally damage his White House bid.
No detail was too small for reporters analyzing the state of the Romney campaign. What was he reading? What was he chatting about with his staff? Was he watching the leaked videos? At one point, a source near the front of the plane passed on the only concrete information about what Romney was doing as he sat near the front of the plane: He had decided, midway through the 75-minute flight, to have a vegetarian burrito for breakfast.
Asked how the candidate is doing, Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to the campaign, told reporters that Romney remains "focused"—a word he used eight times in five minutes to describe the state of their campaign.
"We are still focused," Madden said. "This is still an election that is focused on the economy. It's focused on the direction of the country. … We remain pretty focused and determined. … He's very focused and determined."
For Romney, it has been a rocky 48 hours—even rockier than last week, when he came under fire for suggesting Obama had sympathized with those behind the deadly protests against the United States' diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya. His response largely overshadowed his message of the week, which had been to hit Obama on his handling of the deficit and his failure to create jobs.
After a lost week, the Romney campaign had hoped to return to the economy this week, but it was knocked off course again Sunday by a Politico story detailing the turmoil and fighting taking place among Romney's senior staff over the direction of the campaign.
Team Romney quickly tried to change the subject again—announcing in a conference call Monday that the candidate would unveil a more aggressive strategy with more specifics on how he would govern as president, if elected. But then Romney gave a speech that merely reiterated much of the same policy details he's touted on the campaign trail for months.
Just after 4 p.m. local time, as Romney was leaving his first national security briefing at the U.S. Federal Building in Los Angeles, Garrett Jackson, Romney's personal aide, played for Romney the hidden fundraiser video obtained by Mother Jones magazine. According to a senior aide, the candidate and his staff realized immediately he would have to respond—which he did a few hours later in a hastily arranged news conference held in the middle of another fundraising event in Orange County.
His words were "not elegantly stated," Romney told reporters, referring to the video.
"I'm speaking off the cuff in response to a question, and I'm sure I can state it more clearly in a more effective way than I did in a setting like that and so I'm sure I'll point that out as time goes on," Romney said.
But, he added, "It's a message which I am going to carry and continue to carry."
From the news conference, Romney returned back to the fundraiser he had interrupted, where he raised $4 million. Ahead of his arrival onstage, his staff apologized to donors for the long wait to hear Romney speak.
"Gov. Romney hates being late," Spencer Zwick, Romney's national finance chairman, told donors. "We had a press event that we had not anticipated we would do during the middle of a fundraiser. But this is a presidential campaign and we don't always get to predict what's going to happen every single day."
After he finished addressing donors, Romney boarded his motorcade and headed to a nearby Marriott Hotel, where the campaign was spending the night. He had dinner alone in his hotel room, according to an aide, while most other staffers, grim-faced and tired, retreated to the hotel bar or to their own rooms.
Speaking to reporters on the campaign plane, Madden said he did not know if Romney would watch the full video of the May fundraiser posted by Mother Jones on Tuesday. He said the campaign had not been doing any additional outreach to nervous Republicans—insisting the campaign maintains a "constant methodical flow back and forth with our supporters" at all times.
He downplayed the video again and again—insisting voters would ultimately turn back to the economy. Asked if the campaign thought the controversy would "blow over," Madden let out a laugh and replied, "That's up to you guys."
As the plane began to descend into Utah, where Romney was traveling to hold yet another fundraiser, Madden was asked if Romney is "winning" the campaign right now.
"It's a very close campaign. I think all the polls taken together reflect that. It's a very close, hard-fought campaign," Madden said. "I think it will be all the way to Election Day. That's the way we built our campaign with the realization that it's going to be really close."
A few minutes later, Romney rose from his seat, a smile still on his face, and exited the campaign plane, again.