There was a palpable sense of shock both in the audience and among the advisers after Mitt Romney abruptly announced on Thursday that he was exiting the presidential race.
Screams of "no" and tears came from the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington D.C. One attendee lamented the "bombshell."
As the speech was made, Romney's wife sat quietly in the front row. Cameras zoomed in on her mostly expressionless face, occasionally broken by a slight smile. But not all of the campaign's associates were as composed. Behind the curtains, Bay Buchanan wiped the moist from her eyes. "This is rough," she told the Huffington Post, "very rough."
But the writing may have been on the wall. After the speech, a Romney staffer told the Huffington Post that the former Massachusetts Governor had initiated pay cuts a few weeks back, even though he had invested millions of his own wealth. In addition, he had asked married staffers who were unable to move freely around the country to take diminished roles in the campaign. (Romney spokesman Kevin Madden denied the staffer's account.) A reporter who was on the Romney beat said the campaign had contemplated actually cutting staff but decided against the move.
As Romney finished his address at the CPAC conference, aides filtered into the ballroom to take one last look. Some offered condolences and hugs. Others stood in shock.
Already the attention in the crowd was shifting to the prospect of John McCain as the prohibitive nominee. The Arizona Senator's upcoming speech had loomed over much of Romney's event. Romney's introductory speaker, Laura Ingraham, had set the stage by taking digs at McCain, declaring, among other things:
"It is not enough to say you were a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution. The question is what have you done for conservatism lately."
And: "An obsession with endless bipartisan compromise does not keep us free."
The Romney faithful were equally apoplectic. McCain's name was booed loudly when it was mentioned, even though CPAC officials had pleaded for cordiality.
"It is like now I have to choose between the left and the radical left," said Jeffrey Goldberg, a Michigan Republican and Romney supporter. "John McCain's appearance here will be like David Duke going before the NAACP."