WOLFEBORO, N.H. — It's a family tradition that spans a decade, as Mitt Romney's clan – all 30 of them – gathers at his New England lakeside compound for a week of home-cooked meals, sporting events and ice cream outings.
Only this summer, things are a little different: The patriarch is the Republican candidate challenging President Barack Obama and there's a Secret Service detail in tow everywhere Romney goes.
Nevertheless, the former Massachusetts governor is sticking to his routine. He attended Sunday church, let loose on Monday with a little jet skiing and on Monday night he was eating ice cream in town before piloting his boat back home to his lakefront estate. He walked barefoot with his grandchildren, posed for family photos, and visited with friends – just as he has done every other summer. For Romney, this week is a welcome opportunity to unwind from the campaign trail while reflecting on the biggest decision he'll make during this campaign: choosing a running mate.
"It's just so nice to have everybody together," his wife, Ann, said after church on Sunday. "We never get to see them all anymore."
Her husband has been spending most of his time traveling the country raising money and campaigning against Obama. His wife and sons occasionally join him, but they keep separate campaign schedules of their own. This weeklong vacation will likely be the last real break Romney gets before the GOP convention in late August – it's where he will accept his party's nomination – kicks off the frenzied sprint to Election Day.
So he seems to be making the most of it.
Romney spent Monday morning lounging on the beach at the compound a few miles outside of Wolfeboro, N.H., as his grandchildren played in the sand. Then, he and his wife climbed on a jet ski on Lake Winnipesaukee. Ann drove one of the family Sea Doos while Romney sat behind her wearing a life preserver over a T-shirt, shrugging his shoulders and grinning at the reporters who trailed him in a pontoon boat. His Secret Service detail kept watch from a gray boat with enormous outboard engines.
In the evening, Romney and his clan took their two boats into town for some ice cream at Bailey's Bubble, an ice cream shop that's operated since at least the 1930s. Local residents snapped photos as several of the grandchildren posed in neon t-shirts from the shop, which has been operating for decades. His usually coifed hair windblown, a tanned, relaxed Romney then crossed Main Street back to his waiting boats.
"You all have your life jackets?" Romney asked the many grandchildren who climbed aboard before he untied the lines and drove the boat away from the town's public dock himself.
Romney's first trip to the tiny, centuries-old town of Wolfeboro – decades ago, with his father, George Romney – was to visit the family of hotel magnate J.W. Marriott, also longtime Wolfeboro vacationers. Sunday night, Nancy and Dick Marriott dropped by to visit the Romneys after fleeing a Washington home that was still without power after the weekend's storms.
Like the Romneys, the Marriotts are Mormons, and in the summer both families attend services at the same small, nondescript branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Only the Romneys attended the service Sunday, with their family making up nearly a third of the congregation.
Romney sat next to his wife, with grandchildren occupying the rest of the row. He sang along during the service's three hymns, holding his iPad underneath his navy blue hymnal. Some of the kids – they range in age from a few weeks old to 16 years – grew restless during the long service. At different points, several walked over to receive a kind smile and quiet word from their grandfather. At one point, Romney took charge of a bag of colored cereal, offering the food to a grinning blond toddler.
After the service's first hour, some of the children headed home – but not Mitt and Ann Romney. They stayed for at least part if not all of the two additional hours of meeting time after the sacrament service, which offers bread and water instead of bread and wine. That's a variation of the communion service that allows for the Mormon prohibition against alcohol.
The church service aside, Romney's newly heightened political status threatens to transform Wolfeboro, a quaint, classic resort town of about 6,000 people.
Small restaurants, clothing stores and ice cream shops – some, they say, in operation for a century or more – line Main Street, where during the summer the traffic backs up past the grocery store where Romney sometimes shops. If it becomes a presidential summer destination, it could face the same development and crowding issues that have confronted Kennebunkport, Maine, where President George H.W. Bush's family has a compound.
In past years, Romney has gone running by himself down the private driveway that leads to his 6,700-square-foot, six-bedroom home. The home and the 2.2 acres it sits on are worth $3.5 million; the surrounding land the Romneys have purchased, as well as the boat garage, are worth millions more. The house is easily seen from the water of Lake Winnipesaukee, with a side facing the lake and lounge chairs lined up along the beach.
The candidate keeps a 29-foot Sea Ray boat in the enormous three-boat garage outside of his lakefront estate. He also has a small Boston Whaler, two of the Sea Doo water skis and a Malibu water ski boat. In past summers, he's been spotted water skiing on the lake.
Perhaps the only sign that something's different this summer is the security. Law enforcement boats are parked just off the compound's beach. A Secret Service agent sat quietly behind the family in church on Sunday. And, when Romney travels to town, instead of riding a bicycle, he's in a black SUV flanked by security cars.
This year, questions about whom Romney will choose as his vice presidential running mate hang over his vacation.
The Republican National Convention is drawing closer, and Republicans are speculating that the candidate may be spending part of his summer meeting with potential vice presidential running mates.
Fueling the talk is the fact that Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, whom many observers consider a top contender, will be in New Hampshire next weekend for a Republican fundraiser in Concord. Another potential running mate, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, has visited the house before: He and his wife shared a meal with the Romneys before Pawlenty endorsed his former rival's presidential bid.
For now, there's a sense of normalcy to this vacation.
On Sunday evening, Romney sat with two of his sons on the deck above the lawn on the back of the house, relaxing while his eldest son, Tagg, held one of his twins in his arms. Golf carts ferried family members up the hill and past the boat house, and just one or two Secret Service agents were visible through the trees.
No matter who wins in November, it will be different next summer.
Associated Press staff photographer Charles Dharapak contributed to this report.
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