Is Mitt Romney, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination and lost in 2008, ran again and won the nomination but lost the general election in 2012, really thinking about running yet again for president in 2016? Many Republicans have simply assumed not. Romney has seemed to discourage such talk in media appearances, and there has been a general belief that after losing as the party's nominee, the 67 year-old Romney would return to private life for good.
That belief is wrong. Romney is talking with advisers, consulting with his family, keeping a close eye on the emerging '16 Republican field, and carefully weighing the pluses and minuses of another run. That doesn't mean he will decide to do it, but it does mean that Mitt 2016 is a real possibility.
Nearly all of Romney's 2012 circle of advisers, finance people, and close aides remains intact. Many developed an extraordinary loyalty to Romney, who, in turn, has kept in close touch with them. Romney talks to some of them quite frequently in conversations that cover daily news, foreign and domestic policy, Hillary Clinton, the Republican field -- everything that might touch on a 2016 campaign. "Virtually the entire advisory group that surrounded Mitt in 2012 are eager for him to run, almost to a man and a woman," says one plugged-in member of Romneyland.
A significant number of Romney's top financial supporters from 2012 have decided not to commit to any other 2016 candidate until they hear a definitive word from Romney. They believe they are doing it with the tacit approval of Romney himself. "Spencer Zwick has never said specifically to everyone to keep your powder dry," says the plugged-in supporter, referring to Romney's former finance chairman who remains very close to Romney. "But the body language, the intonation, and the nuance are absolutely there."
So far, Romney's most dedicated supporters do not believe that his disavowals have been anywhere near definitive. They were particularly encouraged in late August, when Romney, in the middle of explaining to radio host Hugh Hewitt why he decided not to run in 2016, seemed -- at Hewitt's prodding -- to open the door just a bit by adding that "circumstances can change":
This is something we gave a lot of thought to when early on I decided we’re not going to be running this time. And again, we said look, I had the chance of running. I didn’t win. Someone else has a better chance than I do. And that’s what we believe, and that’s why I’m not running. And you know, circumstances can change, but I'm just not going to let my head go there.
In early September, Romney seemed to close the door a bit more when he told Fox News, "My time has come -- come and gone. I had that opportunity. I ran, I didn't win. Now it's time for someone else to pick up the baton." While that seemed clear to some, to Romney's supporters it was a statement that still had a bit of wiggle room.
At the moment, Romney is doing the kind of things a candidate might do at this stage in a race. He is working closely with Sen. Rob Portman, vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to campaign for GOP candidates trying to win Senate control. He is appearing some -- but not too much -- on television. He is keeping his hand in things.
The key question for Romney, according to those who have talked to him, is whether former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush decides to run. Romney is said to believe that, other than himself, Bush is the only one of the current Republican field who could beat Hillary Clinton in a general election. If Bush jumps in the race, this line of thinking goes, Romney would not run. But if Bush stays out -- well, Romney's wife Ann raised more hopes in Romneyland during a conversation this week with Fox News' Neil Cavuto:
CAVUTO: One scenario out there, Mrs. Romney, is that Jeb Bush doesn't run after all, and your husband will size up the landscape and that a lot of his supporters, past and present, said, you have the name recognition, you have the Reagan example of the third time was the charm for him, and that it's been done before.
CAVUTO: And -- and that would be appealing.
ROMNEY: Well, we will see, won't we, Neil?
Ann Romney went on to say that she thinks Bush will end up running, and if he did, he "would draw on a very similar base that we would draw on." But Romney's supporters saw her remarks as just another indication Romney is seriously thinking about running. And even if Bush decides to run, some Romney supporters who would otherwise be inclined to go with Bush would still want the go-ahead from Romney first.
"I don't think Romney wants to run against Jeb," the supporter quoted earlier said. "We're going to wait and see. We're going to want clarity, if Jeb tips his hat either way after the midterms. If Jeb tips toward running, I can see a meeting with Mitt to ask his intentions." Whatever happens, this group of Romney loyalists -- a significant number of people with a significant amount of money to contribute -- will not move ahead without his OK.
If Romney did run, one thing the loyalists expect is a change in his top strategists. Recently one veteran Republican operative who was not involved in the Romney campaign said, "All his people want him to run again because they made so much money off it the last time." Now, Romney supporters say that if he mounts another campaign, they would demand that Romney not employ Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer, the Republican strategists who played key roles in the 2012 campaign. Who would take their place is an open question.
What are the ultimate chances Romney runs? One member of the inner circle explained that there's no way to assign a percentage to it, and no way to say that the chances are greater than not. But he quickly added that the odds of Romney running are "definitely more than zero."
That in itself is a huge change from Romney's view during the 2012 campaign. In the intimate documentary "Mitt," Romney, discussing the aftermath of campaigns with his family, said, "I have looked, by the way, at what happens to anybody in this country who loses as the nominee of their party. They become a loser for life, all right? That's it. It's over."
That was then. This is now. And perhaps Romney is no longer quite as sure that it's really over.