By Steve Holland
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) - Paul Ryan's path to becoming Mitt Romney's Republican vice presidential running mate was steeped in secrecy, from an incognito trip to meet Romney to a furtive walk through the woods near his boyhood Wisconsin home.
As Romney and Ryan planned a second day of joint appearances on Sunday in North Carolina, some of the layers of secrecy surrounding the most monumental decision the Republican candidate has made to date are being peeled back.
The head of Romney's VP search process, longtime confidante Beth Myers, broke her silence on many details in a briefing with reporters inside a hangar at Dulles International Airport near Washington. Romney and Ryan themselves spoke to reporters briefly on their flight to North Carolina.
The search was so confidential that background information on a short list of candidates, including several years of tax returns and other documents, were kept in a safe in a locked room at Romney's campaign headquarters and the few people allowed in were not permitted to make copies or take anything out.
What began in April as a long list of candidates was winnowed down to a short list by May 1. By early July, the serious candidates had emerged.
Romney knew Ryan was his man before Ryan knew.
After extensive deliberations over his short list, Romney settled on the 42-year-old Wisconsin congressman who has built a conservative record as a budget hawk in Washington. Romney made up his mind on August 1, the day after he returned from a week-long trip to London, Jerusalem and Poland.
A face-to-face meeting was required, and therein lies a tale. The meeting was arranged for Aug 5 at Myers' home in Brookline, Massachusetts. The challenge was to get both Ryan and Romney together in the same room without the news media or anyone else outside the inner circle knowing about it.
Myers' home was chosen for the assignation. Romney had little problem eluding the news media camped out near his vacation home on Lake Winnepesaukee in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.
It was getting Ryan there that was the challenge.
To avoid flying out of a Wisconsin airport where he could be easily recognized, he was driven to Chicago's O'Hare airport for a flight to Hartford's Bradley airport in Connecticut.
"We gave a lot of thought on how to make this work undetected," Myers said. "And we sent my 19-year-old son, Curt, to pick him up. Paul was wearing jeans, a casual shirt, baseball hat and sunglasses and passed unnoticed through both airports."
Romney and Ryan met privately more than an hour in Myers' dining room after lunch.
"We talked about the campaign, how it would be run," Romney said. "We talked about how we'd work together if we get to the White house, what the relationship would be, how we would interact and be involved in important decisions."
Ryan said being chosen was like going "from the surreal to the real, I guess."
"By the time we met in person I kinda knew it was going to happen. And I was very humbled. It was the biggest honor I've ever been given in my life," he said.
Then came the problem of getting Ryan to Norfolk for the rollout announcement without the news media sleuthing it out. Such movements have been detected before.
They wanted to do the announcement on Friday in New Hampshire but Ryan needed to attend a memorial service in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, for victims of a mass shooting at a Sikh temple.
After that ceremony, Ryan was driven to his home in Janesville, Wisconsin, by aide Andy Speth. He walked in the front door, through the house and out the back door, into a patch of woods familiar from his youth.
On the other side was the house where he grew up.
"I know those woods like the back of my hand, so it wasn't too hard to walk through them," Ryan said. "So I just went out my back door and went through the gully in the woods I grew up playing in. I walked by the tree that has the old tree fort that I built."
When he came out into the open, Speth was there to pick him up. Ryan flew from Waukegan to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, which is not far from Norfolk. He and his family and Myers and a Romney group stayed at a Fairfield Inn, ordered in food from Applebee's and went over Ryan's introductory speech.
"It's now two on two instead of two on one," said Romney. "This is good."
(Reporting By Steve Holland; editing by Todd Eastham)