Mitt Romney's win in New Hampshire had been predicted for over a week, but the victory, a historic one for Republicans in the primaries, marked the growth of his campaign appeal from the Moderate Manager to a former governor whom many began to see as a candidate with the experience and economic know-how to take on Barack Obama.
I spent the evening at Romney's 2012 New Hampshire primary headquarters, and at the results-watching party his staff hosted at South New Hampshire University.
I wanted to know: what appealed to voters about Romney? How many were supporting him simply because they wanted to oust Obama? How were his supporters, and his volunteers, different from the other candidates'?
I got all that and more. Many of Romney's supporters in New Hampshire back him because he has the manpower to take on an incumbent president. But many also know him personally, or observed his work as governor of Massachusetts and were struck by what they saw as true bipartisan skill. Some voted for him out of duty; others are about to dedicate their lives in part to his election campaign.
Below, get a look inside Mitt Romney's campaign headquarters on the night of the 2012 New Hampshire primary, and see why the Granite State swung for the former Massachusetts governor over libertarian Ron Paul or third place finished Jon Huntsman.
6:30 P.M. MANCHESTER, N.H.
Romney's New Hampshire 2012 primary headquarters is crammed between a music store and a Van Otis chocolate shop. Without the banner in front, it'd be easy to pass it by.
But what strikes me when I walk into the makeshift office is how like an established headquarters it really feels.
At Santorum's HQ, volunteers sat at long tables with a projector aimed at the wall, streaming Fox News coverage while supporters ate Dunkin' Donuts and made last-minute phone calls to local voters.
Press presence was strictly monitored, but that didn't stop one volunteer, while I was waiting to be let in, from making a campaign faux pas when Obama's face swam into view on the big screen.
Baby murderer! she said, brandishing a donut half while she talks to a colleague across the table. He's a baby murderer.
Then a volunteer came and told me no more press are allowed at the headquarters.
Romney's HQ couldn't be more different.
Though there are some frazzled coordinators reminding volunteers about heading to the results-watching party, most of the people here are riding the high of having sided with a sure-to-win candidate.
While other offices have opened into one giant room with a few back corridors, Romney's center of operations is evenly divided into a call-in room, a TV area, and a back room for storage.
And while entering the Santorum office felt a bit like sneaking into the CIA, I'm in Romney's headquarters for less than a minute before a perky brunette asks if I need a cab to get to the party at Southern New Hampshire University.
Before all the Romney volunteers head out to SNHU, I sneak a few moments with Andrew, a law student at UVA.
I actually had been familiar with Gov. Romney since he was, in fact, governor, Andrew tells me. Back when I was a senior in high school.
Like many of the voters I talked to earlier in the day, Andrew hits the main bullet points on Romney in quick succession: he was an able governor, he can manage the economy, and he's been able to work the bipartisan angle successfully in the past.
Beyond the voter checklist, however, Andrew (who refers to Romney as the governor) has met his candidate personally several times over the years, something other volunteers echo.
Like them, Andrew crossed state lines to campaign for Romney, not just because he admires his work, but because he feels he has a measure of the man.
He visited headquarters yesterday, Andrew tells me. While he didn't manage to catch him, other volunteers say the candidate has been going in and picking up the phone, working side-by-side with the volunteers in the final days.
At this point in the night, a results-watching party feels almost anticlimactic: nobody in the Romney office has any doubt that their candidate is going to win, and win big.
But Romney volunteers, again, are striking in their professionalism, at least in front of the press: even as they joke with each other and divide into carpooling groups, his supporters are always ready to answer questions and to sell their candidate up until the last minute of the campaign. These kids have been trained well.
One such volunteer is Lionel, who eagerly answers my questions about why he's backing Romney.
Lionel hails from Massachusetts by way of Ghana and the UK, and has been a Romney supporter, like almost everyone at the headquarters, for almost a decade.
I want to vote for someone who believes in this country, Lionel says. I believe this is the greatest country in the whole world.
Lionel is a passionate defender of Romney, especially after the candidate was attacked by some of his GOP rivals over the weekend for his background with Bain Capital LLC.
What people don't understand about Mitt Romney is that he's a venture capitalist, someone who takes a failing company and turns it around, Lionel argues.
Some people lose their jobs, but it's not to say that you're trying to do that, he finishes.
It's good profit. That what it's all about. To make profit. Whatever it takes.
7:40 P.M., South New Hampshire University
Romney's results-watching party is held in a gym on the SNHU campus, a whitewashed building that smells strongly of chlorine.
The gym, with its rows of blue folding chairs and a set of bleachers in the back, feels oddly like a high school graduation set.
The feel is helped by the projector screening Fox News onto a humongous screen on the stage, and the audience sitting quietly for the results to come in. Except for the low murmur of a homeroom crowd, Romney's supporters aren't milling around, or making a lot of noise.
Until, that is, Obama's presence makes itself known. When the incumbent president's name is even mentioned, boos erupt from the crowd. When his face appears on the screen, one woman actually stands up and throws something at the screen, though it flutters ineffectually downward before even clearing the chairs.
Whenever Romney comes on, the crowd, which has been steadily growing, bursts into cheers. Interestingly enough, the same thing happens, to a smaller extent, when Santorum pops up on screen, though not when fellow contender Newt Gingrich is mentioned.
Perhaps it's not as surprising, considering how many supporters seem to have known Romney personally from his days running the Massachusetts government, but every person I talk to insists on calling Romney Governor Romney or the governor, almost never using his last name only.
I try to imagine Jon Huntsman being called Ambassador or Governor Huntsman in this race. Or Newt Gingrich being called Speaker Gingrich, decades after he lost his position in the House. It just doesn't work.
I'm careful not to refer to the candidate as the former governor any more when interviewing voters. One begins to sport an eye twitch that worries me.
The party only just started, but the results are already in: Romney, as expected, is the clear winner, blasting ahead with 34 percent of the vote only an hour after the polls closed.
Romney supporters are now insatiable: every time Romney's name is even mentioned, much less his victory, the crowd must give a rolling cheer and break into ecstatic applause.
Romney's campaign manager, Ryan Williams, is expected to give an interview with Fox News. The crowd settles down almost immediately to wait for the exclusive, though sporadic whistling still breaks through.
Romney's made his comeback, Williams tells Fox News.
Four years after he lost the nomination to John McCain, Romney has made history. The candidate is the first Republican to sweep both Iowa and New Hampshire since the 1970s.
Romney will roar out of New Hampshire in the morning, and head out to South Carolina with more momentum [than ever], Williams tells the former governor's adoring fans, who once again break out into exuberant cheers.
While Romney's supporters wait for their candidate to make a televised speech on his victory, I do some fact-checking.
1976 was the last year a Republican candidate won both Iowa and New Hampshire.
But the winner, incumbent Gerald Ford, would go on to lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter. Carter, meanwhile, lost both New Hampshire and Iowa before being elected to the presidency.
Fox News begins to stream Romney's speech.
Mitt, Mitt, Mitt! the crowd on-screen and the one around me chants, echoing throughout the white-washed gymnasium.
Romney takes to the stage.
Tonight we celebrate, tomorrow we go back to work, he tells his dutiful crowd, employing the rhetoric that made media outlets dub him the manager weeks into the campaign.
He passed ObamaCare, Romney says in his continuing assault on the president. I'll repeal it!
Romney has said he'll repeal ObamaCare if elected for months now, offering a five-part replacement to the president's reforms back in May.
He continues to dodge, however, the legislation's striking similarities to his own Massachusetts health plan, something his opponents have ripped into him for in the past.
Jon Gruber, an MIT economist who worked with Romney on the Massachusetts law and attended meetings when Obama was crafting his own plan, told USA Today in April that the president's reform was little more than a more encompassing and ambitious version of Massachusetts' RomneyCare.
So far, Romney has managed to deflect most of the heat by claiming the distinction lies in the idea of a state program versus a federal one.
We put together a plan that was right for Massachusetts, Romney said during the October debates. The president took the power of the people and the states away from them and put in place a one-size-fits-all plan. It's bad law. It's bad constitutional law.
As with most of his speeches, Romney spares barely a moment on his desperate GOP rivals before launching once again into a full-scale attack on the incumbent president.
The last years have offered a lot of change, but not a lot of hope, Romney says. The president has run out of ideas. Now he's running out of excuses.
It's a tactic that his supporters at the SNHU party seem more than happy to follow. When he urges supporters to make 2012 the year he [Obama] runs out of time, his speech has become something of a round between his sound bites and the crowd's exuberant reaction.
In fact, there's a gentleman sitting by me on the bleachers who seems determined to repeat and support everything Romney says, echoing the candidate's remarks on foreign intervention and the financial crisis with several sage nods and knowing looks at those sitting next to him.
At one point, he turns to say something to me, sees the tape recorder, and turns back around again.
After Romney's televised speech ends, some supporters already head out. Others, better informed, start edging their way toward the front of the stage: Romney is expected to swing by SNHU tonight.
Camera crews are already parking themselves on top on the blue folding chairs, despite some very frazzled coordinators telling them to get down.
Looking around the stadium, I spot a man and his two young boys, boy scouts in full uniform.
All three are holding miniature American flags, and the man, Jeff, takes a moment to answer a few of my questions while he waits for Romney to show.
Jeff doesn't know Romney personally or through direct experience as a Massachusetts citizen. This puts him in the latter category of supporters I've seen so far: those who began supporting another candidate before signing on to the GOP favorite.
You have to work within the system, Jeff tells me. Unfortunately, for the long haul, you have to face certain realities.
Jeff would have voted for Santorum if he felt the candidate had a chance of winning New Hampshire.
The big issues, for me, are the social issues, he says.
Santorum would be a great president, there's no doubt about that, and he's solid on the social issues.
But people change when they're in the beltway, and it's doubtful Santorum will make it that far.
I ask Jeff what they think about some of the Ron Paul supporters I interviewed earlier today, who said they'd rather write in their candidate of choice than settle for the party pick.
It's hard not to admire that kind of dedication, and Jeff can certainly sympathize. He's not even sure he supports a two-party system.
I personally do not like a, what do you call it, a duopoly, he says. But he wouldn't vote for another candidate if it meant Obama might get re-elected.
If you do that, just to make a statement... that would be disastrous.
The giant screen on stage has been alternating between endless Romney signs and Fox News commercials.
As Romney's appearance gets delayed, however, staffers decide to turn the channel back on... just as Paul prepares to make his speech as the runnerup at the 2012 New Hampshire primary.
Ron Paul has established himself as the alternative to Mitt Romney, Sen. Jim Forsythe (R- N.H.) says to a crowd of watching Romney supporters. [Paul is] the alternative to the status quo.
Not a single person I've talked to has come to be a Romney supporter by starting in the Paul camp.
Most of them have been Romney supporters from the beginning or switched teams when they realized candidates like Santorum, Gingrich and Rick Perry were falling fast.
Nonetheless, most of them listen attentively to Paul's speech, even when some of what he says goes directly against Romney's words just a half an hour before.
It's likely because Paul is an incredibly engaging speaker, as well as one expressing many of the same frustrations Romney earmarked in his victory speech.
It's no longer that irate, tireless minority that is stirring up the troops, says Paul to cheers of President Paul in the crowd. [It's] now that irate majority!
Paul even elicits a few chuckles when he acknowledges Romney's win by saying his campaign was nipping at his [Mitt Romney's] heels.
There is one moment in Paul's speech, however, where the differences between him and Romney become much starker.
In his televised speech, Romney's rhetoric frequently veered into the religious, arguing that the election was about saving the soul of America.
But his most striking comments came when he talked about America's military presence abroad and at home.
I will insist on a military so powerful, nobody will ever think of challenging it! Romney crows.
Over at Paul HQ, the message is very different. Bring them home! Bring them home! supporters cheer as the Texas representative argues for cutting into war profiteering abroad.
Paul has been edging up behind the Romney for weeks now. Many Americans are looking for change in 2012, but the two men most picked for the job, in many ways, couldn't be more different.
Romney is about to make another speech to his supporters and campaign volunteers at SNHU. His ever-growing family is on stage, and his wife Ann is by his side.
What an honor to be here with you, he says. We should have rented a bigger room, you know that?
Romney's family has been coming to New Hampshire for about 40 years now, and he has enough insider knowledge to get a big reaction from the crowd.
He references creeks and cliffs whose names are hard to catch but which spark immediate appreciative laughter or applause.
Gone, or at least buried, is the Romney whom commentators called stiff and detached when relating to voters. The GOP frontrunner seems to view the microphone as nothing more than an extension of his arm, and even manages to recover from a minor family flub without breaking a sweat.
Number three, that's Ben, he says, naming off his family, before correcting himself: Oh, no, I'm sorry... number three is Josh, over here.
He may not have the colloquial feel of a grandfatherly figure like Paul, or even Jon Huntsman's wise-cracking or Rick Perry's swagger. Still, Romney's demeanor congenial, encompassing and rather fatherly. I almost want to join the throng already lining up to shake his hand.
Watching him speak, I'm reminded of what Lionel told me earlier. He's a very personable guy, he said back at the New Hampshire headquarters.
I have carried on a conversation with him, and he's very easy to talk to... He's very down to earth.
And so, with no further ado, the person you really came to hear from, Romney says. My sweetheart, Ann.
Romney's wife takes the mic, protesting that she wasn't expecting another speech, but whips off her perfectly practiced address without any trouble along the way.
Not much is known about the candidates' wives this early in the race, but Ann Romney already boasts an impressive pedigree.
She was an active participant in her husband's 2008 campaign, and already has been one of the most visible spouses on the campaign trail.
And if Mitt Romney seems to have warmed up to being on stage, his wife Ann seems completely at home there.
It's unfortunate that the secret's going to get out about how gorgeous the lakes region is! she tells the crowd.
Romney thanks New Hampshire for giving his family a memory of the Granite State we will never forget, and promises to return to make New Hampshire red for 2012.
Before they leave, Romney's enormous family stands waving on the stage, and the Romneys walk along the edge of the stage barrier, shaking hands and signing autographs.
A few reporters, myself included, try to get a word in edgewise, but even the big network can't get anything out of the couple.
The only response comes when someone asks Ann Romney if she's proud of her husband. Yes, she says. Very proud.
Romney and his wife may be done with the crowd in New Hampshire, but the younger Romneys aren't finished yet.
The children gather behind the big screen projecting Romney 2012 and begin making shadow figures using their silhouettes, waving their arms and spinning to the music.
The maneuvers were almost certainly planned by the Romney campaign (no children come up with a synchronized plan that fast), but when Ann Romney's shadow appears behind the screen to usher them off stage, it's a work of political theater that borders on masterpiece.
Less than ten minutes after Romney's departure, the SNHU gym is almost completely empty. The only people left are cameramen, network reporters, and a few stragglers looking to grab a stray Romney 2012 sign.
One such woman is Carol, a New Hampshire native who's the only voter I've talked to all day to do such thorough research on the candidates.
Except for Rick Perry, already in South Carolina for the Jan. 21 primary, she's gone to see every candidate in the race, including Buddy Roemer.
But from the beginning, she was drawn to Romney, though Huntsman caught her eye in the final hours.
He hasn't been part of the problem, she tells me, citing the now-standard litany of his business and governing experience. He's a strong candidate, he's got a lot of backing, and he's a good enough negotiator that he'll be able to get both sides to work together.
Like Lionel, she was struck by Romney's personable nature when she met him at a spaghetti dinner earlier this month, and like Jeff was greatly influenced in her decision by the belief that Romney was the best man to beat Obama.
Romney also appeals to her, however, for a reason somewhat like that which drew voters to Obama in 2008: his potential First Family.
It would be a crowded White House, she concedes, but I think [Romney being a family man] would show a lot of values. They're approachable people.
I ask her what she thinks of Ann Romney, and her voice drops almost instinctively to a softer register.
There's another candidate's wife, she says conspiratorialy. And I shouldn't get caught up in it, but I was just amazed. I could not picture her in the White House.
That spouse was Callista Gingrich, who shares Ann Romney's blonde hairstyle and, in Carol's opinion, not much else.
Furthest from the Romneys that you could possibly be.
For someone gunning so consistently for Obama, it's fascinating to see how much Romney is employing much of the same rhetoric his Democratic rival used in 2008.
Romney promises change, hope and a chance to restore the people's faith in America, the same promises Obama gave.
Like Obama, Romney is trying to take down a president who his party feels has led the country horribly astray. This time, he's battling an incumbent, a far harder task before him than the one he faced four years ago.
Yet Republicans and right-leaning independents, Paul supporters aside, seem prepared to take on America's manager candidate. His emphasis on the economy, on experience and on foreign affairs is strongly reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's attacks on Jimmy Carter in 1979-80.
But only November, and the economy's growth or flounders until then, will answer whether the 2012 presidential election will end in the same way.