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Mitt Romney shops before the big debate

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Reporting from Charleston, S.C. -- What did Mitt Romney do on the afternoon before the climactic debate that could determine whether he wins his party's nomination? He went shopping, of course.

About 2 p.m. Thursday, I was strolling north past the posh shops on King Street when I recognized the burly man in the black suit who was walking briskly toward me. I'd seen him the night before alertly scanning the crowd as Romney pumped hands and posed with babies after a speech. In that split second of recognition, the security man passed by and I caught a glimpse of the guy behind him -- a man dressed casually in jeans, a checked shirt and windbreaker. It was Romney in his ubiquitous campaign uniform.

Now, I want to stipulate that I am not a fan of the paparazzi. They seem more like parasites than journalists to me -- a lowly breed ranking only a bit higher than cockroaches and talk radio hosts. I figure movie stars, royalty and even vulture capitalists deserve a little privacy and down time. Nevertheless, as I watched the Republican front-runner hurry along the sidewalk, I couldn't resist trailing behind to see where he was going.

It turned out his destination was Brooks Brothers. I zipped up my jacket to conceal my media ID and entered the store, hoping to blend in with the other customers. The place was nearly empty except for the clerks, the security guy, a couple of campaign staffers, Romney and me. As Rick Perry would say, “Oops."

Romney was at a counter browsing through an assortment of dress shirts. The sales clerk was telling him if he bought three he'd get a discount. "Get a clue, pal," I thought to myself, "he can afford it." Then I remembered reading how Romney is a bit of a skinflint on the little stuff -- clothes, meals, even cars -- so I wasn't surprised when he went for the deal.

You'd think a presidential candidate would have a pretty decent wardrobe on hand, but Romney told the clerk he needed to upgrade because his old shirts were getting "a little dingy." Romney's shirt size, by the way, is 16 1/2 / 34. I know that because that's what he told the clerk. I remember it because that's my size too. This is a good thing to know in case Romney needs to borrow a shirt from me before the next debate (although mine might be a bit too dingy for him).

Romney chose a white shirt, a blue-striped shirt and a checkered shirt nearly identical to the one he wears at every campaign rally. The he began looking through the ties. I don't know if one ended up in his shopping bag. Studiously trying not to attract the attention of the big security guy, I was pretending to be intent on a pile of sweaters. Actually, I was rather appalled by the gaudy purples and reds and yellows that seemed very un-Brooks Brothers. I couldn't imagine them on Romney.

He paid for the shirts himself. (The sales clerk would be wise to hold on to the sales slip; that’s a possible presidential signature, after all.) Romney told his staffer he wanted to go by Brookstone (purchasing presidential pillowcases?) before returning to the hotel. He headed out the door and up the street with his small entourage. I went out too, but let them go. 

A block away, I went into the Charleston Place hotel, just off Market Street. Yes, I admit it, I was looking for a men’s room. When I came out and turned down a hall, I saw the security man and Romney coming my way. After I had so graciously let them out of my sight, I worried they might notice me again and think I was following. There was a shoeshine stand just to my left. I hopped up in the chair as the candidate walked past.

I’m as much a skinflint about the little stuff as Romney, so this was my first professional shoeshine in years. It was needed. The old shining pro went to work. About two minutes later, the hulking security guy came back and stood nearby, talking on a cellphone. Was he checking me out? Was he calling hotel security?

My boots finished and shining like they haven’t since I bought them a year ago, I stepped down from the chair. The security man stepped over. Without a word to me, he climbed up into the chair and ordered a shine.

I guess he too wanted to look his best for Mitt Romney’s big night.

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