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.
My 16 Months With Mitt Romney
But there were plenty of highs too, like the very next morning at a pancake breakfast in Iowa, Romney bounded in, asking, "Where's Emily?"
I was where I usually was, front and center clutching the 7-pound camera that has been attached to my right hand since that June day, filming his entrance. Was I supposed to put the camera down and respond? Everyone in New York would ask me if the exchange was on camera.
I kept rolling, but spoke up, thanks to some prodding by my counterparts, "I'm here."
"Happy Birthday!" Romney exclaimed, before resuming his campaign duties, which in this case was dolling out floppy pancakes to senior citizens.
There were behind-the-scenes moments with Romney's wife Ann, too. The day before the South Carolina primary she accompanied Romney to one of his Greenville, S.C. campaign offices. It was a tight fit, so I ended up sitting cross-legged on the floor to squeeze in, forgoing my laptop for my blackberry, furiously tapping my notes into the device.
I guess I looked exhausted, because that's what Mrs. Romney said to me after the event adding, "You look tired." It took everything in me not to respond, "You think?" Instead I opted for a polite smile and a forced laugh.
In the 16 months I've followed Romney, I've covered every major moment of his candidacy, big and small. I nearly missed the Gov. Chris Christie endorsement because I decided to take advantage of a few hour lull by taking a nap. I've raced on foot across Costa Mesa, Calif., to make it to his impromptu press conference to address his now infamous "47 percent" comments, and I was there when he made his statement on the killings in Libya this September. I still have the recording of my own voice saying, "What?" when Romney told a crowd in New Hampshire that he liked to be able to fire people.
I've interviewed him myself twice. The first time having to shoot the interview myself, and unsure of how the show wanted the back and forth shot, was forced to ask the same question twice, the second time meekly requesting, "Governor, same question, but this time please speak into the camera."
I learned the awesome feeling of breaking news on the trail, like the night of the Florida primary I was the first to report that Romney would get Secret Service protection later that week. But I also quickly learned the difficulties of doing so in a pack of close-knit journalists when nobody would talk to me at the bar that night, only a few even making eye contact, leaving me to walk back to my hotel across Tampa alone.
There were things I saw that I'm glad I saw, like the time I was the only one to catch Romney handing a woman in South Carolina a wad of cash. She'd been struggling to make ends meet, and he wanted to help.
I also became familiar with feeling of despair that day, when I realized I hadn't been rolling, and the exchange wasn't on tape.
It's been a long journey from the start of the campaign when I still lost sleep over whether I'd be able to figure out how to set up my tripod correctly and feed the video quickly enough. I got over my paralyzing shyness – at least for the most part – and laugh now thinking about the time I was in the same airport train car as Romney and couldn't bring myself to say "hello."
And now it's over, the ride of a lifetime. I've been warned to expect a letdown, feel sad. But, not for long, I hope. Soon enough, there will be another plane to catch.