WASHINGTON (AP) — Mitt Romney pulled the plug on his first presidential run on Feb. 7, 2008, and immediately served notice that he wasn't about to fade away. "I hate to lose," he told conservatives that day.
Barack Obama wasn't paying too much attention to Romney just then. The first-term Illinois senator was in a bare-knuckled brawl with Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination and, if he got past the New York senator and former first lady, was calculating his odds of defeating Republican Sen. John McCain.
Four and a half years later, Romney is not to be discounted. He and Obama are in a down-to-the-wire race for the White House that has split the nation down the middle after a long, hard slog that upended conventional wisdom time and again, smashed campaign spending records and pushed the limits of saturation politics.
After all those ads, nasty and nastier, was it any wonder that a 4-year-old's heaving sobs about hearing too much of "Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney" went viral in the campaign's closing days?
The arc of this campaign has taken the nation from a flavor-of-the-month Republican primary campaign, captured in a seemingly never-ending series of GOP debates and buzzwords like "9-9-9" and "oops," to a general election race that keeps circling back to the economy after detours into foreign policy, social issues and even the employment status of Big Bird.
Along the way, Campaign 2012 has brought us a rambling one-sided conversation by Clint Eastwood at the GOP convention, a fresh dose of Bill Clinton's charms at the Democratic convention, and a jarring intrusion from a superstorm named Sandy. Celebrity businessman Donald Trump had a couple of cameos, as did Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, who railed against Romney's health care policies, and Scott Van Duzer, the Florida pizza man who hoisted Obama off the floor in a giant bear hug.
Now, on Election Day's brink, with 27 million people already having voted, Obama appears to have more options than Romney for reaching the 270 electoral votes that will clinch victory. But half of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, and almost as many disapprove of how Obama is handling his job.
It's easy to forget there was a time when Rep. Michele Bachmann was the surprise breakout from the GOP primary field. To be replaced by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Then pizza executive Herman Cain and his 9-9-9 tax plan. Then former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Then former Sen. Rick Santorum.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Trump and other GOP notables all did the tease but never joined the Republican speed-dating scene. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman tried to go steady but just couldn't get noticed.
Romney's GOP rivals hurled everything they had at the former Massachusetts governor as Obama silently cheered them on from the White House. Santorum labeled Romney a snob. Gingrich called him a liar. Huntsman went with "perfectly lubricated weather vane." Perry contributed "vulture capitalist."
The most memorable moment to come out of 20 GOP debates may have been Perry's "oops" — when he tried to shrug off his inability to remember the third government agency that he'd like to abolish. It became a metaphor for his short-lived campaign.
Through it all, Romney, who had never completely stopped running after his loss in 2008, hung tight, spent liberally and refashioned his image from that of a Massachusetts moderate into a candidate with a "severely conservative" approach to governing and a knack for turning around failing enterprises.
He made more than his share of gaffes, feeding into critics' efforts to paint him as an elitist with remarks like "corporations are people" and "I like firing people." In the latter case, Romney was talking about the importance of people being able to choose among different health insurance policies, but his opponents used a shorthand version against him in a campaign that kept fact-checkers working overtime from start to finish.
The GOP primaries were a roller coaster: Santorum won a squeaker in Iowa. Romney claimed New Hampshire. Gingrich prevailed in South Carolina. Romney claimed Florida, spending five times what Gingrich did to flatten the competition, and Nevada. Santorum won in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.
It was only a matter of time until Romney finally piled up enough delegates to clinch the nomination on May 29 in Texas. For practical purposes, by then the general election campaign had been going on for months.
For all the words spoken, money expended and attention devoted to the Republican primary fight, the most important thing that happened in the presidential race may have been what wasn't happening at that time: Obama did not draw a Democratic opponent.
For decades, incumbents who've faced either no primary challenge or an insignificant one have been re-elected, while those who've had a serious challenge have not.
"Romney had to move right to win his primary's nomination and Obama didn't have to move left to win his," says Dan Schnur, a former Republican adviser who teaches political science at the University of Southern California. "So while Romney was talking about contraception and immigration, Obama was bragging about expanding offshore oil drilling, cutting the corporate tax and using military drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
While the Republicans were busy with their infighting, Obama made a decision in February that would be key to staying competitive over the nine-month march to Election Day: He reversed course and gave his blessing to the big-money independent fundraising groups that he had previously assailed as a "threat to democracy" because of the potentially corrupting influence of money on politics. The candidate who once told supporters to "fight their millions of dollars with millions of voices" decided voices were great, but he'd like those millions of dollars, too.