I met Mitt Romney on the very first day I was sent to cover him – the day he announced his candidacy in June 2011, on a picturesque farm in New Hampshire.
He was scheduled to do a sit-down interview with ABC News so I tagged along, eager to meet the guy I'd be assigned to learn – and I quote one of my bosses here – "absolutely everything about."
Inside the old farmhouse, I slipped in between cables and lights to greet Romney, as producers worked to figure out how to make the sweltering heat inside the old home cool down.
The meeting was brief, the handshake firm. I remember thinking at the time that he's the type of person who lingers with his handshake as a way to remember a person's name. I might have been right because since then, he has always referred to me by name.
That meeting was more than 16 months ago, and since then I have traveled the globe tracking Romney's every movement, from how many press conferences he's held (49) to how many flights his campaign plane has taken (more than 80, and I was on board for all but a few).
Through my travels, which took me to 45 states and three foreign countries, I learned to tick off which Romney son is which for last-minute requests from producers, (yes, that really is Ben on the stage) and I almost – save for the newborns – have the 18 grandchildren's names down, too. One of the youngest, Nate, will always stick out in my mind because of his great sense of humor during a late night flight during the South Carolina primary. Wearing a Spiderman T-shirt, he decided to run up and down the aisle of the airplane with his hands out to get high fives from the gaggle of exhausted reporters, oblivious to the worried campaign amid a heated fight for the nomination.
And following my orders to know "absolutely everything" about the candidate, I now know that he ate fried chicken in Florida, pie in Michigan, Cheetos on his charter, butter burgers in Wisconsin and ice cream in New Hampshire. I know more about Romney's tastes, in food and politics, than I do about anyone else.
Yes, I have lots of hotel points and airline frequent flier miles. A favorite trip: Jackson Hole, Wyo., where we actually had free hours to enjoy the beauty. And a least favorite location: Jacksonville, Fla., where during the primary I called my news desk in tears and pleaded for an hour off with no requests, no e-mails. They obliged.
I learned that traveling to northern New Hampshire in the dead of winter can sometimes have its perks, in the form of yellow hard hats and a rare press conference with the candidate. I realized that everyone has a breaking point, and sometimes it's on the floor of the Chicago O'Hare airport with two hours of sleep and a delayed flight ahead of you, wondering if you really need to go to a speech in the red state of Oklahoma. I learned that as cool as it to stay in a different hotel in a different city every night, it gets lonely.
It is those memories, the good and the bad and especially those that never made it on television, in my blog posts or even on Twitter, that have made this experience both grueling and exceptional.
I will never forget the times I was yelled at by a campaign staffer – was told I was wrong about something I knew I was right about (a simple, "it's on camera" fixed that) and accused of being, and I paraphrase, "the worst reporter ever." It stung.