SAN DIEGO -- The man who planned to be president wakes up each morning now without a plan.
Mitt Romney looks out the windows of his beach house here in La Jolla, a moneyed and pristine enclave of San Diego, at noisy construction workers fixing up his next-door neighbor's home, sending regular updates on the renovation. He devours news from 2,600 miles away in Washington about the "fiscal cliff" negotiations, shaking his head and wondering what if.
Gone are the minute-by-minute schedules and the swarm of Secret Service agents. There's no aide to make his peanut butter and honey sandwiches. Romney hangs around the house, sometimes alone, pecking away at his iPad and e-mailing his CEO buddies, who've been swooping in and out of La Jolla to visit. He wrote to one who's having a liver transplant soon: "I'll change your bedpan, take you back and forth to treatment."
It's not what Romney imagined he would be doing as the new year approaches.
Four weeks after losing a presidential election he was convinced he would win, Romney's rapid retreat into seclusion has been marked by repressed emotions, second guessing and, perhaps for the first time in the overachiever's adult life, sustained boredom, according to interviews with more than a dozen of Romney's closest friends and advisers.
"Is he disappointed? Of course he's disappointed. He's like 41," adviser Ron Kaufman said, referring to former president George H.W. Bush. "Forty-one would hate to lose a game of horseshoes to the gardener in the White House, and Mitt hates to lose. He's a born competitor."
The defeated Republican nominee has practically disappeared from public view since his loss, exhibiting the same detachment that made it so difficult for him to connect with the body politic through six years of running for president. He has made no public comments since his concession speech in the early hours of Nov. 7, and avoided the press last week during a private lunch with President Barack Obama at the White House. Through an aide, Romney declined an interview request for this story.
After Romney told his wealthy donors that he blamed his loss on "gifts" Obama gave to minority groups, his functionaries were unrepentant and Republican luminaries effectively cast him out. Few of the policy ideas he promoted are even being discussed in Washington.
"Nothing so unbecame his campaign as his manner of leaving it," said Robert Shrum, a senior strategist on Democratic presidential campaigns. "I don't think he'll ever be a significant figure in public life again."
Yet friends insist Romney is not bitter. Bitterness, said one member of the family, "is not in the Romney genetic code."
One longtime counselor contrasted Romney with former vice president Al Gore, whose weight gain and beard became a symbol of grievance over his 2000 loss. "You won't see 'heavyset, haggard Mitt,'" he said. Friends say a snapshot-gone-viral showing a disheveled Romney pumping gas is just how he looks without a suit on his frame or gel in his hair.
"He's not a poor loser," said John Miller, a meatpacking magnate who co-chaired Romney's finance committee and owns the beach house next door. "He's not crying on anybody's shoulders. He's not blaming anybody. . . . He's doing a lot of personal introspection about the whole process -- and I'm not even sure that's healthy. There's nothing you can do about it now."
By all accounts, the past month has been most difficult on Romney's wife, Ann, who friends said believed up until the end that ascending to the White House was their destiny. They said she has been crying in private and trying to get back to riding her horses.
Romney has been keeping in shape with bike rides around La Jolla, past the bistros and boutiques that hug the rugged coastline. The son of Detroit -- who boasted of the Cadillacs he owned as a sign of support for the U.S. auto industry during the campaign -- was spotted driving a new black Audi Q7, a luxury SUV manufactured in Slovakia.
Over Thanksgiving, one of Romney's five sons, Josh, his wife and their four children packed into a single bedroom at the Spanish-style villa on Dunemere Drive here. One friend said they ordered their turkey dinner from Boston Market, the home-style restaurant chain, because there were too many kids running around the house to bother with cooking a feast.
That big renovation to transform the Romney beach house into an 11,000-square-foot manse complete with a car elevator? It hasn't begun yet.
Romney also is plotting his next career steps -- a return to business, perhaps, or something in the charitable realm or with the Mormon Church, said friends who have discussed possibilities with him. He kept a diary on the campaign trail and is considering writing a book.
"He's a very vibrant, young 65-year-old. He looks 55 and acts 45," Kaufman said. "He's got a lot of life left in him."
Romney has ruled out running for another office, adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. Still, he doesn't plan to recede completely from public life. "He'll be involved in some fashion because that's the commitment of his family to public service," Fehrnstrom said.
After Romney's father, George, lost his 1968 presidential race and finished serving in President Nixon's Cabinet, he ran a national non-profit organization that advocated volunteerism. Friends said Romney has mentioned the Clinton Global Initiative as a model he might replicate.
Unlike the last two unsuccessful nominees, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and John Kerry, D-Mass., Romney had no job waiting for him. His public platform fell out from under him on election night.
"That transition to happen so fast -- it's got to be hard. He doesn't talk about it or really show it, but I know it's got to be painful," said L.E. Simmons, an oil investor and close friend who visited the Romneys here the Friday after Thanksgiving.
In private, Romney has told friends he has little interest in helping the Republican Party rebuild and rebrand itself.
Advisers also said he felt no need to explain himself after his comments to donors about Obama using the power of incumbency to give "gifts" to women, black and Latino voters leaked into the public sphere. One adviser said Romney regretted the remarks "coming out the way it did." Fehrnstrom, meanwhile, said, "He was expressing the frustration that any challenger would feel about an incumbent who used the powers of his incumbency -- as we would have if the shoe was on the other foot."
Romney relied heavily on like-minded millionaires such as Simmons to raise more than $1 billion during the campaign, and he has been calling many of them to thank them individually for their help. Last week, he called Jet Blue Airways Chairman Joel Peterson, an old friend.
"He just said, 'I'm sorry I let you guys down,' " Peterson said. "He sounded really calm, upbeat, warm. There was no anger or sense of defensiveness or anything."
So far, however, Romney hasn't called up some supporters who contributed in other ways.
For years, as he competed for the affections of GOP activists in Iowa, Romney called Joni Scotter over and over again-- on her birthdays, on her 50th wedding anniversary. When Scotter's husband passed away this spring, Romney had white roses and lilies delivered to her.
Scotter said she hasn't heard from Romney since he lost Iowa on Nov. 6.
"He hasn't called," she said. "I know they're moving to California . . . so he's doing his very best to stand back."
On Nov. 15, his last night in Boston before jetting west, Romney rented out il Casale, an Italian restaurant whose owner is a friend, for about 30 top advisers and staffers.
According to one aide, as everyone went around the dinner table sharing stories, Romney told the group, "Even though I don't always show it, I'm very emotionally attached to you, as if you were all part of my family, and I'm going to miss you all."
Friends said Romney plans to reside mostly in La Jolla during the colder months and in Wolfeboro, N.H., where he has a lakefront compound, during the warmer months. But he will maintain his official residency in Massachusetts.
Romney will keep a small office in Boston -- he is subletting the space from Solamere Capital, the private equity firm founded by his eldest son, Tagg, and his campaign's finance chairman, Spencer Zwick -- where his only remaining aide, assistant Kelli Harrison, will manage his affairs.
Romney has personally helped his out-of-work staffers land new jobs, holding office hours inside the campaign headquarters for anyone who wanted his counsel. Campaign chairman Bob White created an internal résumé bank and marshaled the vast donor network to help.
Here in California, there is still some joy, friends say. A photo surfaced before Thanksgiving showing a grinning Romney riding a roller coaster during a visit with his grandkids to Disneyland.
Romney also wrote to Miller, who has been out of town, that his La Jolla neighbor's house was "a mess" from an ongoing renovation project and that "nobody was working."
"He was pulling my leg," Miller said.
By Philip Rucker
The Washington Post