NEW YORK — They were the core of the original Trump team, a small group of largely obscure political operatives who signed on a year ago for the seemingly quixotic presidential campaign of an oft-mocked celebrity businessman.
Yet there they were in the lobby of the Trump Tower in New York City, sharing a very public embrace as Donald Trump's victory in Indiana made it clear he was on track to be the Republican nominee for president. The improbable had come to pass.
"It's professionally very satisfying," campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said in an interview. "A lot of us have been here from the very beginning when the professional pundits said this was a career-ender and we weren't going anywhere."
"We've done something no one thought could be done," Lewandowski said.
Lewandowski's path to Trump Tower was an unlikely one. He grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, worked as a political operative on Capitol Hill, graduated from the New Hampshire state police academy and took a job with Americans for Prosperity, the flagship conservative political organization of the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.
Lewandowski had no national campaign experience when Trump, after a brief introduction, hired him on the spot to run his bid.
Neither did Trump's spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, a former Ralph Lauren fashion model and a public relations pro who worked for Trump's daughter, Ivanka, and became essentially a one-woman communications shop for a campaign that has attracted unprecedented media attention. Nor did Dan Scavino, a longtime executive at the Trump Organization and golf course manager who became the campaign's social media director.
"These are people who just believed in my father and what he was doing," Eric Trump, one of the candidate's children, said in an interview on Thursday. "That's what makes it special. They wanted to drop everything they were doing to help out. We have a fraction of the staff that other campaigns have yet look where we are."
Scavino, Lewandowski and national political director Michael Glassner were among the members of the campaign staff watching on television when Ted Cruz announced he was suspending his campaign, clearing the path for Trump to become the GOP standardbearer. No one quite remembers who initiated the group hug that was captured on Twitter feeds.
"I will never forget that evening," Scavino said. "(I) thought we would be celebrating winning Indiana and it turned out to be the evening we celebrated the nomination. Without question, it was a historical evening that will go down in the history books."
Iowa conservative Sam Clovis signed on with Trump in August, after quitting former Texas Gov. Rick Perry's struggling campaign. At the time, the move prompted more than a few raised eyebrows in the state's Republican circles, but Clovis says now that his instincts were right.
"I never took it personal," said Clovis, national co-chairman and policy adviser. "The idea was that I felt that Mr. Trump had a lot to offer the country and we worked hard. It's been a really hard fought battle."
"We're not a typical campaign," Clovis said. "We've done this with a relatively small number of people."
And it hasn't all been smooth.
Lewandowski was arrested for simple battery of a reporter, though prosecutors declined to press charges. The original team has been expanded, particularly as it girded for a possible battle with Cruz over delegates, and there has been friction between the old guard and the new, more seasoned hires led by longtime Republican operative Paul Manafort. And more changes seem to be on the horizon as the campaign shifts to the general election.
But that Tuesday night won't be soon forgotten.
"We took a lot of arrows for a long time from a lot of people," said George Gigicos, the campaign's lead advance man. "Vindication is a good word. It's been incredible to start at the bottom and end up on top."
Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.
Contact Jonathan Lemire on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@JonLemire