Why all the buzz about Mitt Romney 2016?

Mitt Romney and his allies are adamant he won't run for president again. But there are signs it could happen: a humanizing documentary, Chris Christie's woes, and Mr. Romney's active role in public life. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
Mitt Romney speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on March 15, 2013. The former Massachusetts governor and 2012 GOP presidential nominee says he's not running in 2016, but that's not stopping the buzz.

Mitt Romney himself is adamant: “Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no,” he told The New York Times last month.

Romney insiders, the people who are still in regular touch with the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, are also dead certain he would not even consider running again. And if you’ve seen the documentary “Mitt,” chronicling Mr. Romney’s two presidential campaigns, you can see it in the faces of his sons, his wife, and Romney himself. They’ve had enough. More than enough.

And yet the mentions continue. The Times’s Maureen Dowd throws out Romney ’16 in a recent column, almost like a dog throwing itself a bone. Liberal columnists had so much fun during the past two presidential cycles with Romney – the Mormon plutocrat with the big, attractive family – that they’re almost trying to will another campaign into existence.

Pollsters have also gotten into the act. The Virginia-based firm Purple Strategies tossed a live one into the 2016 discussion last month when it included Romney in a poll of New Hampshire Republican voters looking ahead to their 2016 primary. Romney, who governed neighboring Massachusetts and lives part time in New Hampshire, came out on top with 25 percent.

Romney himself has added to the buzz by appearing on Sunday-morning talk shows and late-night TV. Two weeks ago, he slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon.

Earlier in January, after MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry presided over some unfortunate jokes about Romney’s newly adopted black grandson, Romney went on "Fox News Sunday" and accepted her apology. He also opined on weightier issues – Obamacare and security at the Sochi Winter Olympics, both good topics for someone with oodles of executive experience, as a businessman, governor, and 2002 Olympics CEO.

By appearing on TV, Romney is making clear that he wants to be part of the conversation on issues of the day. And it’s not hard to see a hint of schadenfreude in his face as he dissects President Obama’s problems. If that leads to speculation that he might be up for a third run at the presidency, then so be it. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s spectacular decline in public estimation, after the Bridge-gate scandal blew open, has left a void at the top of the potential Republican field, and the press and pollsters are more than happy to fill it with a handy, familiar face.

Purple Strategies acknowledges that Romney is probably just a placeholder for “To Be Determined” in the mighty scrum for position in the Republicans’ 2016 primary race.

“He serves as a convenient ‘parking lot’ for Republican voters who are waiting for other candidates to develop,” the bipartisan political strategy firm says in its report on the January poll.

Other top GOP finishers in the Purple N.H. poll, taken Jan. 21-23, were Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (18 percent), Governor Christie (17), and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (13).

While to normal people, it’s too early to be talking 2016, in the world of presidential politics it isn’t. The Invisible Primary is well under way. Teams are forming, fundraising prospects are being assessed, guts are being checked. It’s also worth noting that Alex Castellanos, a co-founder of Purple Strategies, worked for Romney’s first presidential campaign and was vocally unhappy with how the second was run. Maybe Mr. Castellanos thinks the third time’s a charm.

But if anything could nudge Romney off of “no, no, no, no, no,” it might be the documentary itself. More than any ad or public appearance Romney made during his two campaigns, “Mitt” humanizes the man. It shows him in prayer with his family, romping in the snow with grandchildren, ironing his sleeve as he is wearing it.

“Look at the documentary: It shows, ‘I’m a human being. I cry,’” says Tom Whalen, a political historian at Boston University.  

The film also reveals a fatalistic side. At a fundraiser in Los Angeles early in the 2008 campaign, Romney tells donors that nominees who lose “become a loser for life, all right?” Romney makes an “L” sign with his fingers on his forehead.

"Mike Dukakis, you know, he can't get a job mowing lawns," Romney said to laughter, referring to another Massachusetts governor who won his party’s nomination but not the presidency. "We just brutalize whoever loses."

In 2008, Romney was already painfully aware of his image as a flip-flopper and felt helpless to address it, calling himself “the flipping Mormon.”

"There's literally nothing I can do. Do we put on my website what my positions are? Do we answer the flipping charges?" he asked. "It's so damaging to me.... And maybe I've got to live with that. 'Oh you're flippin' everything.' In which case I think I'm a flawed candidate."

Indeed, Romney’s flaws as a candidate have been well rehearsed. In “Mitt,” a sympathetic portrait by a Mormon documentarian, perhaps the most devastating moment of Romney’s political career is barely explored: the secretly taped video of him telling donors that 47 percent of Americans are dependent on the government and see themselves as “victims.”

Were Romney to run again, he would need to overcome his image as an out-of-touch plutocrat. But even if his family has had it with presidential campaigns, as the film makes clear, it’s not entirely clear that Romney himself has finished dreaming – especially with Christie’s national prospects tanking.  

“Romney’s playing a pretty active role for someone who’s turned his back on politics, so I’m beginning to wonder if something’s there,” Mr. Whalen says. “Certainly the opportunity is there; he has the fundraising network.”

And it’s not as if the past year has been good for the man who beat Romney in 2012. To many Americans, says Whalen, Romney looks a lot better now, in retrospect.

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