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Bowling for answers: No room to spare in campaign tradition aboard Romney jet

Philip Rucker / The Washington Post

NBC News' Peter Alexander holds the orange that played the role of bowling ball in an exchange with presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

EN ROUTE TO PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- It's not something they teach in journalism school, but on Mitt Romney's campaign plane Saturday, I had to bowl a strike.

The tradition, I'm told, dates back decades. Campaign reporters -- relegated to the back of the plane -- try to engage the presidential candidate they're covering -- in the first-class cabin, of course -- by bowling an orange up the aisle to get them to respond. Clinton did it. W did it. Would Romney do it, too?

To make things interesting, Maeve Reston of the Los Angeles Times wrote a question on the orange. (The flight attendants couldn't confirm where it was from, but I'm guessing Florida, a swing state.) It read, in Sharpie black ink:

"Gov, are you going to let Portman play Obama? Come chat!"

(A question about whether his Medicare plan would alienate seniors in Florida wouldn't fit.)

Of course, the challenge is bowling it up there. The traveling press tapped me to be our bowler, but this was no ordinary lane. From my assigned seat in 14D, Romney's plush seat in the second row looked miles away, and the aisle has a bend in it where it meets first class -- a dog leg left, if you will. A nearly impossible shot.

After a little negotiation with campaign aides, trip director Charlie Pearce waved me forward to make it a little easier. No chalk. No air vent to dry my hands. Just me, an orange and two emergency exit floor lighting strips to guide the fruit's way.

Romney had been warned this might happen. As I walked up, he gave me the go-ahead. With a small crowd of reporters and cameras behind me, I leaned over, took a deep breath and rolled that rock right down the middle.

Arguably, Pete Weber -- with his 33 career titles -- couldn't have done much better.

Romney picked up the orange and read its message to himself. Then, after briefly considering his reply, the former college English major started scripting.

He stood smiling, turned to us and, without a word, rolled it right back to his place in a long line of past presidential candidates. This was hardly "Meet the Press," true. But we got our answer -- even if not a chat:

"Shh! Don't tell (former New Hampshire Gov. John) Sununu! But yes ..."