SOMEWHERE IN THE AIR BETWEEN IOWA AND NEW HAMPSHIRE—A cheer erupted when Mitt Romney boarded his campaign plane shortly after sunrise on Wednesday morning in Des Moines.
"We only fly winners," the plane's captain announced over the public-address system, explaining that they had flown former Presidents Bush and Clinton and "now Governor Romney."
Flashing the look of feigned surprise he often wears when wandering into packed campaign events, Romney moved slowly down the aisle, laughing and shaking hands and saying hello to members of his family and staff.
"Ha ha ha," the candidate chuckled at virtually every row between 5 and 10 on the plane his staff has dubbed "Hair Force One." "Glad to see you. Thanks."
Romney ignored the incessant click of photographers' cameras and stares from reporters right up until he made his way to the first row of the press cabin at the back of the plane—making it virtually impossible to pretend he didn't notice members of the media intent on documenting his every move with their iPhones and tape recorders.
With his wife, Ann, at his side, Romney said he had gotten just two hours of sleep the night before, as he, like the rest of the political world, waited until the wee hours of the night for Iowa to finish calculating its caucus results. Finally, shortly after 1 a.m., an aide told him he had narrowly won Iowa. He and his family, he said, were hanging out in his bedroom at that point.
"Landslides are terrific," Romney said. "I just didn't see that in last night's figures."
Four years ago, after his loss to Mike Huckabee in Iowa, Romney chartered a flight in the dead of the night out of Des Moines to Portsmouth, New Hampshire--a flight marked by the dour mood of the candidate and his staff.
A who's who of bleary-eyed political reporters gathered just after 6 a.m. in the lobby of the Des Moines Marriott, filling out bag tags and sharing war stories of the caucus night before. The New York Times, alone, had six reporters on the flight, including opinion columnist Maureen Dowd, who wore dark sunglasses in the dim light of the Marriott lobby as she picked up her bag tag. A Romney spokeswoman dutifully called the names of reporters on the flight's manifest to make sure that nobody had accidentally slept in.
On board a tour bus to the airport, the reporters checked their emails and monitored their Twitter feeds, commiserating about charter flights of past presidential campaigns. At the airport, the swarm of reporters slowly dragged off the bus and through airport security, only to be escorted to the tarmac to re-board the same bus they had taken to the airport.
"We're flying a bus to New Hampshire?" one reporter joked.
On board the flight, reporters shuffled past Romney's staff and his family as they made their way to their seats. One member of the press paused to point his iPhone in the face of Tagg Romney, the governor's oldest son, who promptly grinned. "Paparazzi!" he said.
In the back of the plane, reporters were squeezed into assigned seats. (This reporter was plopped in between the Washington Post's Dan Balz and the New York Times' Jim Rutenberg.) Shortly after take-off, the mingling began, as veteran reporters chatted with young network embeds covering their first campaign—their eyes always trained toward the front of the plane should Romney do something, anything of note.
But the candidate mostly stayed in his seat—no doubt enjoying a moment of calm ahead of an approaching storm.
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