NEW YORK -- When a group of national political reporters arrived at Mitt Romney's New Hampshire summer house in July 2010 for an off-the-record barbecue, the former Massachusetts governor greeted them warmly and handed out beers from a nearby cooler.
The dozen or so scribes -- from such outlets as Time, Politico, CNN, Fox News and the Washington Post -- spent the next few hours eating burgers, taking boat rides and chatting with the former and future presidential candidate. Before leaving, guests even huddled around the Romneys' television to watch LeBron James make his much-hyped decision to join the Miami Heat live on ESPN, according to reporters who've covered Romney. After the show, Romney said goodnight as several reporters and aides departed to keep the drinks and conversation flowing at nearby Wolfeboro Inn.
But since that lighthearted evening on Lake Winnipesaukee, national political reporters haven't had many similar chances to get close to the Republican candidate. The Romney campaign, running this cycle from a frontrunner position, has scaled back on the candidate's accessibility from four years ago and rarely allows for such unguarded moments on the campaign trail. While Romney has taken the stage for primetime debates and has done a few cable news hits, he's avoided lengthy interviews with magazines to which he spoke in 2008 -- such as Time and Newsweek -- and hasn't appeared on any of the Sunday morning chat shows, a traditional pit stop for any presidential contender.
On Sunday, Fox News host Chris Wallace called attention to Romney's absence from "Fox News Sunday" and his competitors' programs.
"With Governor Perry's appearance, we have now interviewed all of the major Republican candidates in our 2012 one-on-one series except Mitt Romney," Wallace said. "He's not appeared on this program or any Sunday talk show since March of 2010. We invited Governor Mitt Romney again this week, but his campaign says he's still not ready to sit down for an interview."
During recent Republican debates, Romney has twice mentioned an interview he gave to a top national political journalist, Dan Balz of the Washington Post. That interview, however, took place in June 2007. Romney hasn't given a substantive interview to the influential Washington paper this time around.
"Four years ago, he was quite accessible," said the Washington Post's Karen Tumulty, who covered the candidate last cycle for Time.
Tumulty recalled flying with Romney from Boston and traveling around Iowa for a May 2007 cover story. Several months later, she sat down again with Romney to talk about health care in Massachusetts. "You could ask him pretty much about anything," she said. "He talked quite expansively about his growing up, his faith, his business career."
Balz, who attended the July 2010 barbecue but declined to discuss it given the off-the-record ground rules, said he found Romney was "more open and available" during the last presidential race. "In general, I think they have kept him as much as possible out of the press spotlight," Balz said. "And I think it's part of what has been their overall strategy, which has been to act like a frontrunner and not do a lot of interviews."
STRATEGY FOR A NEW REALITY
The strategy makes sense in several ways. Romney doesn't need to build name recognition through magazine profiles as he did four years ago. Also unlike 2008, there isn't a Democratic race grabbing headlines and competing for oxygen on cable news, thus leaving the Republican primary as the only game in town. And throughout the race, Romney has remained in the first tier of candidates and always part of the conversation.
Scott Conroy, who covered Romney in 2008 as a CBS News campaign embed and now writes for Real Clear Politics, recalled how there were some events last cycle to which just a handful of reporters showed up. "Now it seems like every time Romney has an event, the entire Beltway media universe descends," he said.
The Romney campaign recognizes that it doesn't need to fight for airtime or column inches as it did in 2008 and, as a result, has become more strategic about media access.
"In 2008, Mitt Romney was new to the national stage and not very well-known outside of Massachusetts," spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said in an email to The Huffington Post. "There was an obvious benefit to doing a lot of earned media because it helped raise his profile, and we wanted to increase name awareness and recognition. The downside was that we often found ourselves at the mercy of the daily news cycle and answering questions about whatever happened to be in the headlines that day. One of the things we learned from that experience is that we had to do a better job of getting his message across in media interviews."
This cycle, Fehrnstrom said, the campaign is "generally more careful about when and where we put him out to do interviews."
"We don't chase the headlines of the day," he continued. "When he does an interview, we try to do it around a policy announcement so he can talk substantively about the issues. This allows us to focus on the reasons why he got into the race in the first place, and that's to talk about jobs and how he can turn around the economy."
Still, the Romney campaign doesn't ignore the headlines of the day.
According to reporters, Romney staffers immediately email articles -- and even political reporters' tweets about the candidate -- to the campaign war room. But while keeping on top of everything written about the candidate, the Romney campaign doesn't overreact to pieces that may depict him in a less-than-flattering light. Multiple reporters even described the Romney press shop as having a "zen" approach to the media. In keeping with Romney's slow-and-steady 2012 strategy, regardless of who may be the Republican flavor of the moment, his press team seems to take the long view. They aren't wasting time fighting every single blog post.
Reporters also give the Romney team high marks for professionalism and responsiveness, noting how it keeps them updated on the candidate's travel schedule and is on point at events.
Such attention to detail was on display this past Friday. Before Romney arrived for a Manchester, N.H., town hall meeting filled with a few hundred Granite Staters, a campaign volunteer asked over a microphone whether all the members of the media had found places to plug in their video and audio equipment. "Do all the members of the media have a place to plug in? Is everybody plugged in who needs to be plugged in?" said the volunteer.
Print reporters also had no reason to complain at the event. Wireless Internet service, the holy grail of on-the-road reporting, was not only accessible in the room but blazing fast.
Reporters say the disciplined and professional Romney press operation likely stems from the top.
"Romney is a very unemotional kind of data-driven person, and so I think that's reflected in the way they interact with the media," Conroy said. "It never seems emotional. They have a job to do, and we have a job to do."
Although the Romney press team isn't proactive in trying to generate tons of additional exposure for the candidate, it doesn't ignore the media's unceasing appetite for campaign news. Staffers regularly feed scoops, such as endorsements or fundraising numbers, to must-read blogs and email newsletters favored by political junkies, such as Politico's Playbook or the Playbook-inspired campaign cheat sheet, Morning Score.
Also, the campaign puts the candidate himself out there when such access may have an impact. So far, Romney has met with several newspaper editorial boards in early primary states, including New Hampshire's Union Leader and Foster's Daily Democrat, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Mass. This week, Romney will sit down with another New Hampshire paper, the Portsmouth Herald.
On the trail, the candidate is willing to take questions from national reporters but only during agreed-upon "press avails." Romney, a former CEO who once sought order in the boardroom, seems to expect a similar level of structure in the candidate-reporter relationship. In early 2008, Romney had a famously testy exchange with the Boston Globe's Glen Johnson after the reporter -- then with the Associated Press -- interrupted the candidate and challenged his claim about not having lobbyists working on the campaign.
Romney's rules of order were on display earlier this month, too. During a New Hampshire campaign event, he ignored reporters' questions before backtracking to inform one scribe exactly when he will and will not answer queries, according to CNN's Peter Hamby.
"I do press avails, and then I answer questions that are important questions in the length that I want to do. But what I don't do is in a group like this is stop and rattle off [answers] to people just as we walk along," Romney said.
"So that way you don't get the chance to hear the full answer that I'd like to give," he continued, according to CNN. "So those are important questions. I'll be happy to address them in a press avail or the town meeting. But in events like this, I don't take press questions because it doesn't give you or me the chance to have a full discussion of the topic."
Ashley Parker, a New York Times reporter currently on the Romney beat, wrote Friday about how the candidate expects reporters to play by the rules of scheduled press avails and how he "avoids parrying with reporters on rope lines or other unregulated moments."
"When a New York Times reporter happened upon Mr. Romney changing planes in Minneapolis this month," Parker wrote, "the candidate warded off the reporter's question by pointing to a traveling aide half his age and explaining, 'I've got to do what my media guy tells me.'"
THE PRESS IS ALWAYS WITH US
While Romney may be wary of getting too chummy with reporters on the trail, he isn't one to take harsh swipes at the media like rivals Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann or Newt Gingrich. The other candidates' views may have a trickle-down effect within their campaigns. The Perry campaign, for example -- which operates under the idea that the establishment media have lost their influence and can be largely circumvented on a national level -- has gained a reputation among political reporters as unresponsive to their questions and needs on the trail.
On the other hand, Kevin Madden, a former Romney media staffer who now serves as an informal adviser to the candidate, said that Romney understands the "level of scrutiny and attention" one receives when running for president -- an attitude that could influence how even his junior staffers deal with the press. "Oftentimes when you have a candidate who thinks the press is being unfair, the campaign internalizes it," Madden said. "They reflect that attitude with the press."
Griping about the press may lead to cheers from one's base, but it's unlikely to be successful on a national level. In 2008, the Hillary Clinton campaign in the Democratic primary and the John McCain campaign in the general election complained publicly (and privately with editors and reporters) that the media were going easier on Barack Obama. The media-bashing strategy didn't work out for them, and it doesn't lead to goodwill for any candidate with national political reporters, who -- for better or worse -- will continue closely watching and scrutinizing a candidate's every move and utterance on the campaign trail.
Madden, who served as national press secretary during Romney's previous presidential race, contends that Romney understood in 2008, and again in 2012, that he has to take his lumps now and again in the press. Although Madden isn't part of the Romney press shop this time around, he sounded a bit zen-like himself when talking about dealing with the media.
"Presidential campaigns are the process of begging for the right to be humiliated," Madden said. "The quicker you make your peace with that, the better you will be working in that environment."
Reporter Jon Ward contributed to this article.
Below, a slideshow of awkward Mitt Romney moments:
At a campaign stop this spring in Derry, New Hampshire, Mitt Romney pulled a gag that raised eyebrows. While posing for a photo with his arms around the waitresses at Mary Ann's Diner, Romney suddenly jumped forward, miming as if someone had pinched his hind quarters, and exclaimed "Oh, my goodness gracious!" The GOP presidential candidate later said he was "just teasing" and the gag is "kind of fun to do."
On the same Granite State visit Mitt Romney stopped off at Blake's Restaurant in Manchester. On the way out he met with the diner's owner and cracked this egg: I saw a young man over there with eggs benedict. He had the eggs benedict with a hollandaise sauce and the eggs, there. And I was going to suggest to you that you serve your eggs with hollandaise sauce and hubcaps. Because there's no plates like chrome for the hollandaise! The owner laughed politely.
Trying to make small talk with patrons at a New Hampshire diner, Romney asked a married couple sitting in a booth together, "You know each other?" Other Romney conversation nonstarters, via The Washington Post: To a man wearing a "Joe Gauci Landscaping" T-shirt: "You do some landscaping work?" To two older women who just came from the gym: "Are your knees, hips doing okay?" ... Romney seemed to be auditing one man: "What's happened to your financials the last couple of years?"
On the campaign trail in Florida, Romney and a small group of voters discussed unemployment and how to find a job in the struggling economy. The GOP presidential candidate worth $200 million chimed in, "I should tell my story. I'm also unemployed." The crowd laughed and asked if he was on LinkedIn. "I'm networking," Romney said, "I have my sight on a particular job."
In the now-infamous video from Romney's 2008 presidential bid, Mitt meets with voters at a Martin Luther King Day parade in Florida. After nervously approaching a crowd of youngsters and awkwardly weaving his arm into the huddle, he randomly blurts out, "Who let the dogs out? Whoo Whoo!" For the full effect, watch the YouTube video above.
At a town hall event at a senior center in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney asked the elderly audience if anyone was over 100 years old. The exchange, via the Daily Caller: "Anybody here over 100 years old?" Romney asked. Crickets. "Not yet, but we're getting there, right? We're on our way," continued Romney. "We're hopefully going to get there soon." "Well, not so soon. We hope to get there safe and sound."
At a campaign stop in Colorado, Romney mingled with patrons at a Mexican joint in Denver. From The Washington Post: At one table, a boy offered Romney a $1 bill that he had folded origami-style for good luck. The candidate happily accepted it, but then rifled through his wallet looking for money to give the boy in return. Romney had a $100 bill, but evidently did not want to give that away. An aide handed him a $1 bill, but Romney said that wasn't enough. Then, deep inside his leather billfold, Romney found a $5 bill. "We'll give you an Abraham Lincoln back," he said, handing it to the boy.
Mingling with voters on a campaign stop in Iowa, Romney ordered a plate of fried chicken, corn and baked beans. While chatting with the market's owner, Romney, ever the business executive, curiously referred to the meal as a "product."
Courtesy of Politico, this video shows Romney trying his hand at comedy during a campaign stop in New Hampshire. Romney talks to the crowd about his four years in politics vs. 25 years in the private sector, and how politicians get recognized in public. I was in the Newark airport, flying to Boston, and I was reading my newspaper and I heard someone shriek and I looked up and she was pointing at me. She had on a cowboy hat, cowboy boots; she was a Chinese exchange student. I knew she wasn't Texan because she had her jeans tucked into her boots. She pointed at me and she said, 'You're John Kerry!" And I said, "I sure am." For the full act, and the audience non-response, check out the video above.
For 15 years Mitt Romney ran the private equity group Bain Capital. The successful financial company earned him millions. An LA Times article about Romney's career at Bain painted a picture of the businessman under strain. "In tense meetings, he sometimes perspired so heavily it became an office joke. Or he nervously flapped his tie and said, "Oooohhh, what do we do now?" former colleagues told the paper.
As Romney entered the 2008 race, he released a 13-minute video of his family aimed at humanizing him. The video, titled "The Decision," went viral, but not for the reasons Romney wanted. The short film is narrated mostly by his wife Anne Romney, who comes across as charming, personable and engaging, while the rest of the scene gives off a cloying whiff of privilege, cloister and artificiality. Mitt sits down with his family to discuss the pros and cons of running for president, although Anne had already admitted that the decision had basically been made earlier, undermining the conceit of the filmed family gathering. Mitt, apparently unable to behave informally even with his family, whips out a white legal pad to take notes on his family's discussion. "Let me ask: How do you minimize the downsides?" the business executive asks his sons and daughters. Tagg Romney, who suggests he runs, has one warning for his pop: "The country may think of you as a laughing stock."