Campaign Diary: Christmas At Crunch Time

Mitt Romney made his fortune, estimated to be in the hundreds of millions, at Bain Capital in the 1980s and 90s. In his successful 2002 bid to become Massachusetts' governor, Romney spent $6.3 million of his own money, breaking a state record at that time. Fast-forward to Romney's unsuccessful 2008 presidential run where he spent $35 million from his own personal fortune in the Republican primaries. If Romney decides to run for president again in 2012, he is likely to dip into that fortune again.
This campaign diary is written by Andrew Kirtzman, a veteran correspondent for WCBS-TV in New York City. Kirtzman is the author of "Rudy Giuliani: Emperor Of The City," an account of the former mayor's stormy tenure as the Big Apple's chief executive. He will be writing regularly on the presidential campaign for

Tonight Mitt Romney is throwing a Christmas party, and no one is more excited than I am.

No figure in this campaign has been as unreadable as the corporate candidate with the flawless smile. Driving west towards the Sheraton in West Des Moines, I'm having visions of spending down time with Romney in a casual setting, sharing jokes from the campaign trail over some chili or bread pudding. Maybe tonight he'll drop his guard.

It's isn't easy fighting for political survival in the season of peace. The holiday has the candidates shrouding their commercials as Christmas greetings and re-branding their campaign events as Christmas parties. It's a ridiculous task to appear non-political two weeks before the caucuses. Yet the prospect of seeing Romney chilling tonight has me curious.

I enter the hotel and walk into a ballroom packed with more than 1,000 people. They're sitting at their tables in total silence as Romney stands in front of the room, delivering a speech in a crisp blue suit. He's speaking in front of a Christmas tree, which is the only bow to the holiday theme I can detect.

"This is a time for calling upon the goodness of America and the strength of America."

The sound of platitudes fills the air.

"My campaign is about strengthening America. Our jobs. Our military. Our values. Our families."

The audience gives him a nice ovation, but starts filing out the moment the speech ends. Some party.

I push my way to the front of the room and stick my tape recorder between Romney and a stream of well-wishers seeking a moment of his time. It's a fruitless search for some spontaneity. Romney is polite and smiley, but makes no attempt to connect with the people shaking his hand. Each gets a short, innocuous comment and perhaps a photo with him. The scene has all the spontaneity of a Swiss watch.

I wonder how many other reporters through the years have had moments similar to the one I had driving here tonight, eagerly hoping to catch a rare intimate view of this impenetrable figure. Some may have succeeded, for all I know. But there'll be no warm and fuzzy Mitt Romney moment tonight.

The Star Bar

The schedules for candidate Christmas parties keep popping up in my email box, and the concept continues to intrigue me. Twenty-four hours after the Romney event, I am headed out to another party in yet another search for a Genuine Moment.

A dense fog has settled over Iowa this evening, giving the desolate streets of Des Moines a Jack-the-Ripper-in-London quality. Only the headlights of oncoming cars and the Christmas lights along Grand Avenue pierce the view as I drive toward my destination.

I am headed to see Christopher Dodd, a man at the opposite end of the political food chain.

The lights outside the Star Bar start to shine through the mist. Music spills out of its doors - loud, bad rock music, the kind they play at bars serving chicken wings and egg rolls.

Dodd is doing so badly in the Democratic race that Real Clear Politics omits him from its poll results altogether. The latest CNN survey has him at one percent. This, for a person so serious about his run that he moved his family here.

Yet the scene inside is far from tragic. Dodd has packed the back half of this sprawling place, and his supporters are listening intently to his speech, ignoring the blaring music in the room. You can choose to listen to Bob Marley singing "No Woman, No Cry," or you can hear Chris Dodd talking about the Family and Medical Leave Act.