Mary Altaffer / AP
Mitt Romney, right, shakes hands with his newly announced vice presidential running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, after Ryan addressed the crowd Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012 in Norfolk, Va.
This article is based on reporting by NBC’s Carrie Dann, Garrett Haake, Alex Moe, Jamie Novogrod, and Andrew Rafferty. It was written by Dann.
At 11:11 pm on Friday night, political journalists all over America read the subject line of their latest email, blinked, and asked aloud, "Where's Paul Ryan right now?"
There was exactly one person standing on the Republican congressman’s driveway in Janesville, Wisc.
NBC reporter Alex Moe, who had spent 15 days shadowing the onetime dark horse to be Mitt Romney's vice presidential pick, was preparing to leave Ryan's neighborhood for the night when the email blast thundered into her inbox: "MITT ROMNEY ANNOUNCES VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE IN NORFOLK SATURDAY."
The venue for the announcement, according to the press release: the USS Wisconsin. Ryan's home state.
Until a few days prior, speculation for the VP choice had centered around Ohio's Sen. Rob Portman and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But Portman had just given remarks at the opening ceremony for a charity bicycling tournament, and NBC reporter Andrew Rafferty had seen him return to his hotel in Columbus less than an hour earlier.
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Moments before, Pawlenty had just wrapped up a lengthy fundraiser in Manchester, N.H., and NBC’s Jamie Novogrod was at that moment driving behind the black hatchback whisking the governor and his wife back to the Hilton Garden Inn where they were checked in.
Ryan was the question mark.
So, at 11:15 pm, Moe marched up to the side door of Ryan's Wisconsin home -- where the lights hadn't yet been turned off for the night -- and gave a good hard knock. And then another one.
When Pawlenty got the call he wouldn’t be the pick
Three days earlier, Tim Pawlenty woke up to a beautiful vista, and the memory of some disappointing news from the night before.
In Aspen, Colo., for a closed-door conference of national security luminaries, Pawlenty had spent the better part of a nervous week in the shadow of the Maroon Bells peaks, enduring radio silence from Boston.
It was Monday night when he got the call from Mitt Romney and learned that, for the second time in four years, he'd been passed over for the second-in-command job. When NBC reporter Carrie Dann greeted him on the Aspen Institute campus the following morning, he betrayed no disappointment, but he could no longer afford to be very forthcoming about the details of his schedule during the upcoming week.
Pawlenty's hurried manner on the way into breakfast left the reporter's intuition tingling over his halting answers to questions that had previously been met with teasing and tolerance. "Just... my schedule hasn't changed," he told her.
It hadn't. Which meant that he'd need a poker face to field questions from Dann and other reporters for another grueling four days.
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All seemed normal in Norfolk
The story was classic Stu Stevens: too unbelievable to be anything but true.
Top Romney strategist Stuart Stevens was telling reporters in the Norfolk Marriott bar a tale about becoming seriously ill while working in Albania and subsequently having to be airlifted to a hospital in Zurich for treatment. By 11:00 pm Friday night, the press corps had long given up on trying to bait Stevens into giving something away about the vice presidential selection process, and war stories abounded instead. The mood was too casual, it seemed, for anything out of the ordinary to be going on.
After Stevens wrapped up the tale, NBC reporter Garrett Haake decided to call it a night early, ready to rest up for the launch of Romney's bus tour the following day. Teeth brushed, he flipped through his emails one last time before bed.
Then he saw the campaign’s advisory for its vice presidential selection.
An hour later, he would be standing on a pier in the middle of the night, staring in disbelief at the waves below.
Portman wouldn’t be the guy, either
Rob Portman missed the call.
The Ohio senator was giving remarks at Friday night's opening ceremonies for Pelotonia, a charity bike ride to raise money for cancer research, when the phone rang around 7:30 pm. Mitt Romney was on the line, but Portman couldn't pick up.
Two hours later, Rafferty spotted Portman in the lobby of the Columbus Hyatt, clad in a bright red Ohio State Buckeyes polo. By then, Portman had spoken with the GOP nominee, and he knew that he would be returning to Capitol Hill instead of the White House after all.
When the 11:00 pm announcement came that Romney would name his running mate the following day, it was clear to Rafferty that Portman couldn't be the guy. Was the charity bike tour an elaborate ruse? Was the senator being whisked to a secret location in an SUV, ushered thru hidden loading docks under the dark of night?
It couldn't be. But he waited in the lobby until 4:00 am, just to make sure the Ohio pol didn't pull the fast one of a lifetime.
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Chasing (and then losing) Pawlenty
Feeling just a few miles per hour short of a car chase, NBC's Jamie Novogrod was following a black Volvo carrying Tim Pawlenty and his wife Mary back to Manchester. The couple had attended two fundraisers on Romney's behalf that Friday evening, and reporters had waited in torrential rain to spot the couple's comings and goings. The friend driving the former Minnesota governor had a New Englander's lead foot, and the reporter following at a safe distance strained to keep sight of the car.
Pawlenty's star had seemed to be dimming in recent days. So when Jamie got the call from a colleague that the pick was set to be announced the following morning, it seemed obvious that the governor couldn't possibly be “the guy” -- after all, he had a full slate of New Hampshire events the following day, with no hint of an abrupt departure for Norfolk.
At the Manchester exit off the highway, his view of the Volvo obstructed in the wet weather, Novogrod spotted too late the car's tail lights disappearing into the night several hundred yards down the road.
"I've lost him," Novogrod told Dann, who was awaiting Pawlenty at his hotel. "You're on your own."
On the air and on the web, NBC's reporting unfolded with few hiccups.
But behind the scenes, there was some sprinting that would have impressed the U.S. Olympic team, and at least one electronic casualty.
In Norfolk, Haake rushed down to the site of the USS Wisconsin, the site of the following morning's event that just so happened to bear the name of Ryan's home state.
Sockless and juggling camera equipment, he heard the request over his cell phone's speakerphone to set up a liveshot of the event site.
He dropped his blackberry, speaker blaring, to the wooden pier where it bounced once, twice, three times, over the edge into the bay.
Splash. It was gone.
By then, though, Haake already had some peace of mind. NBC had confirmed Ryan was the pick.
The pieces fall into place
At 12:01 am Saturday morning, after intense phone collaboration between reporters in the field, top correspondents, and seasoned producers, NBC News reported three Romney sources indicating that Ryan had been selected for the VP slot.
Throughout the network's team, the pieces had fallen into place.
Just after midnight, when he returned to his hotel, Pawlenty confirmed to Dann and other reporters waiting for him there that he wouldn't be traveling to Norfolk the following day. He wouldn't say who the pick was, but it was clear there was no chance he was the one. "I didn't enter this thinking I was going to be the vice presidential candidate," he said. "So I'm not disappointed."
Portman was safely in his hotel room. Shrugging a phone to each shoulder -- one for a network conference call and one for GOP sources -- NBC's reporters ruled out other also-rans: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and others.
Where was Ryan?
None of them was "the guy." But then ... where WAS "the guy?"
Moe, now accompanied by an NBC satellite truck and crew, was still at the Wisconsin congressman's house. She'd spoken to Ryan earlier that day and accompanied him home from a memorial service for victims of the Sikh temple shooting in his district. Arriving home at around 2:00 pm ET, Ryan had sheepishly admitted that he'd forgotten his keys and trekked into the backyard to dig around for a spare.
That was the last time anyone in the press saw the Wisconsin congressman until he appeared in Norfolk as a vice presidential nominee.
Because after a week of smoke and mirrors to keep secret the most-sought-after answer in American politics, he did just about the simplest thing in the world.
Paul Ryan walked casually into his backyard -- and kept walking. Out of reporters' sight, navigating through a familiar forest, he emerged to a car waiting to take him to the airport.
And then to Norfolk.