BOSTON — As a steady sleet fell, staffers for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign collected their belongings and exchanged embraces and goodbyes Wednesday at their North End headquarters, struggling to understand their loss the night before.
“Can we give it a little more time? It’s still pretty raw,” said political director Rich Beeson, who looked shaken as he walked into the three-story bunker on the Charles River.
Bob White, a longtime confidante of Romney’s, shrugged his shoulders and raised his palms in the air. Ed Gillespie, huddled against the biting wind in a red Romney fleece, marched resolutely into the building. The men, like most campaign staffers, had been confident that Romney would defeat President Obama on Tuesday.
Romney arrived at the headquarters Wednesday afternoon to meet with his staff. Earlier he spoke at a breakfast for senior staff and aides at the InterContinental Boston hotel. Romney reassured them that he and they gave it their best.
“He gave everything he had,” said a longtime friend and fundraiser who attended. “He felt badly that his message about turning America around and solving the nation’s economic issues hadn’t resonated more broadly.”
The candidate's wife, Ann Romney, took it especially hard, the source said. She had pledged after Romney’s unsuccessful 2008 bid that she would never do it again, but was the biggest advocate for his 2012 attempt.
“Ann was quite sad. She was teary-eyed,” he said. Romney “was very thankful for everything people had done and he was remarkably gracious and not bitter.”
The source said although Romney intends to spend time with his family in the aftermath of the loss, he is unlikely to remain out of public view for long. Romney would end up on the speaking circuit and on corporate boards, he said.
“He’ll spend time with his family and recharge his batteries, and then he’ll go after a lot of things,” this person said.
He and others who were in the campaign’s war room Tuesday said it became clear by mid-evening that the night was slipping away from them. But in a clear contrast to John McCain’s campaign in 2008, there is little evidence of finger-pointing and back-biting.
“I think people saw the writing on the wall. There’s no reason to be sad. We left it all on the field,” said another source who was with senior officials as the returns came in. One young staffer burst out in tears, but most handed it well because they felt they had done all they could, this person said. “It was a good fight.”
Many cited Superstorm Sandy as blunting Romney’s ability to reach voters in the last week of the campaign even as it propelled Obama onto television screens as a bipartisan figure. But others acknowledged that Obama’s get-out-the-vote operation, which the Romney campaign had minimized, made the difference.
“They really had a very effective targeting operation, the early-vote effort,” said another longtime Romney aide. “The partisan margin we kept in check. I think they did very well with independents, with the early vote effort. It looks like they ran up the score in a lot of places. Where we might have outperformed our goals, they outperformed theirs by more.”
“I think it’s tough to beat an incumbent president who runs with a very tough and effective campaign,” this person added.
Campaign operatives said Romney’s strong debate performance helped him push back against a summer assault of advertising by the Obama campaign that had defined Romney negatively. But they acknowledged that unforced errors –- like the video of Romney denigrating 47% of the population who supported Obama as dependent on government -– reinforced an image they had sought to shred.
“That painted us in a corner,” said another senior advisor.
All along, another source said, the campaign found it difficult to persuade voters that Romney understood people like them.
Still, there was little Monday-morning quarterbacking at headquarters. Shortly before staffers gathered for a 4 p.m. staff meeting, top aides and the lowliest volunteers could be seen going in and out of headquarters. Spokeswoman Andre Saul’s parents were seen carting to their car a placard with her last name that had been used to identify her inside debate spin rooms. Dozens of advance staffers gathered at a nearby restaurant, nibbling paninis and sipping beer before the meeting.
“It’s like going to the Superbowl and losing,” one said. While the loss was disappointing, “there will always be another game.”