Inside the VP Pick: How Romney Decided on Ryan – and Kept the Secret

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Jason Reed / Reuters

Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, left, stands with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney after being introduced as Romney's vice-presidential running mate during a campaign event at the battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin in Norfolk, Va., on Aug. 11, 2012

Dulles, Va. 

Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate was the product of months of meticulous planning marked by locked rooms, deceptive flight patterns and surreptitious forays through the Wisconsin woods. Hours after Romney unveiled his new No. 2 Saturday morning at a decommissioned battleship in Norfolk, Va., close aides lifted the curtain on the secretive selection method as well as the elegant subterfuge that preserved Ryan’s identity until the night before the Janesville, Wis., native emerged from the decks of the U.S.S. Wisconsin to raucous applause.

The process began in April, shortly after Romney effectively wrapped up the Republican nomination. Intent on sidestepping the pitfalls that dogged John McCain, Romney entrusted the task of vetting potential Vice Presidents to Beth Myers, a longtime confidante who served as Romney’s chief of staff on Beacon Hill and later as his 2008 campaign manager. Speaking to reporters in an hanger at Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia Saturday evening, Myers said Romney issued her a sole directive: that the candidate be qualified to take office on Day One.

(PHOTOS: Paul Ryan’s Life and Career)

In April and May, Myers solicited advice from Republican bigwigs with experience leading a Veep search, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of State James Baker. By about May 1, Romney and Myers had come up with a short list. (Myers declined to say how short the list was or which candidates were on it.) At that point, Romney called each of the potential candidates to ask whether they wanted to be considered. Each one did.

The vetting process was virtually leakproof. Myers recruited a small team of trusted volunteer attorneys, who combed through research and biographical information inside a secure room at Romney’s campaign headquarters in Boston’s North End. At the end of each day, materials were locked inside a safe. No copies were made, and the originals never left the room. Ryan submitted “several” years of tax returns, Myers says. (She would not specify how many.)

Throughout May and June, Romney met with a cadre of top advisers — including strategists Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer, campaign manager Matt Rhoades, consigliere Bob White, pollster Neil Newhouse, senior staffers Eric Fehrnstrom and Peter Flaherty and advisers Ed Gillespie and Ron Kaufman — to solicit advice. Romney and Myers also sought feedback from “a lot” of people outside the core of the campaign, according to Myers. “Everyone was very candid with Mitt,” she says.

(MORE: The Romney-Ryan Ticket Unveiled in Virginia)

In June, Romney and Myers swapped notes. Myers summoned “several” potential candidates to in-person meetings, including sit-downs at a donors’ retreat the campaign held in late June at the Romneys’ chalet in Park City, Utah. By July 2, the dossiers were done, and Romney decamped for his foreign trip and the Olympics in London with the intent of unveiling his pick upon his return.

On Wednesday, Aug. 1, Romney held a meeting with senior staff at his vacation home on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. He met afterward with Myers alone and informed her that he had settled on Ryan.

In a way, selecting a nominee from among what Myers dubbed a “deep bench” of candidates was the easy part. The hard part was devising a cloak-and-dagger plan to keep the secret, which first required arranging a meeting between the presumptive nominee and his would-be No. 2 to make the ask. On Aug. 1, Romney called the Wisconsin Congressman to request a private summit.

It came four days later, on Sunday, Aug. 5. Spiriting Ryan in wasn’t easy. “We gave a lot of thought on how to make this work undetected,” Myers says. Clad in a baseball cap, sunglasses and jeans, Ryan flew from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to Hartford, Conn. He was met there by Myers’ 19-year-old son Curt, who drove Ryan to the Myers’ home in Brookline, Mass., outside Boston, in a rented SUV.

(MORE: A History of Vice-Presidential Picks, from the Pages of TIME)

As Romney drove in from Wolfeboro, N.H., Ryan had lunch with the Myers family. Then the two men met privately for an hour in the dining room. According to Romney, the men discussed their families, the campaign and their governing visions. During that meeting, Romney asked the 42-year-old Congressman to be his Vice President. Ryan accepted. “By the time we met in person, I kind of knew it was gonna happen, and I was very humbled,” he told reporters Saturday night aboard a charter flight to Charlotte, N.C. “It was the biggest honor I’ve ever been given in my life.”

The following day, Romney called Tim Pawlenty to inform the former Minnesota governor he had not been chosen. Romney called the remaining finalists Friday, Myers said.

As striking as the stagecraft in Norfolk was, it was not in the original script. The plan was to debut the ticket on Friday, Aug. 10, in New Hampshire, where Romney kicked off his campaign in the summer of 2011. Tragedy threw a wrench in those plans. A shooting that Sunday at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., which is in Ryan’s district, required Ryan to be at the memorial service on Aug. 10. So the campaign decided to unveil the pick the following morning in Norfolk, in the shadow of the U.S.S. Wisconsin — a clue that eluded the press corps. “That was the next available date. We were in a battleground state,” says Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom. It seemed like a logical time to make the move.

(MORE: Eight Things You Should Know About Paul Ryan)

Getting Ryan to Norfolk under the watchful eyes of a national audience required another feat of misdirection. Knowing that reporters would be tracking the flight patterns of charter planes — and mindful of an NBC reporter specifically assigned to monitor Ryan’s movements — the campaign decided to dispatch Ryan on a charter from Waukegan, Ill., to Elizabeth City, N.C., about an hour south of Norfolk.

After the service in Wisconsin on Friday, Ryan’s chief of staff Andy Speth drove the Congressman back to his home in Janesville. Pausing to say hello to his sister-in-law, Ryan ducked out his back door, cut through his backyard and slipped into the woods behind his house. He emerged about 300 yards away on the other side, in the driveway of his childhood home, where Speth was waiting. “It wasn’t that far of a walk,” Ryan chuckled. They drove to Waukegan and boarded a flight at about 5 p.m., around the same time Romney’s charter left an airfield north of Boston en route to Norfolk. (The movement on Friday night in Ryan’s home, where reporters milled outside after word of the choice began to circulate, was Ryan’s sister-in-law, who stayed to serve as a diversion.)

Upon landing in Elizabeth City, Ryan headed to a Fairfield Inn, where Romney’s small entourage was waiting. They got takeout food from Applebee’s and prepped for Ryan’s speech the following morning. Early Saturday, with a Secret Service escort in tow, they drove up to Norfolk, where Ryan walked into history. “It’s gone from the surreal to the real,” Ryan told reporters Saturday night. “I know we can fix the problems we have in this country, and I’m excited about getting out to do it.”

(MORE: With Paul Ryan, Romney Goes ‘Bold’ and Clarifies the 2012 Choice)