Talk to any of Mitt Romney’s closest political advisers, and the answer is the same: He won’t run for president in 2016.
“I take Mitt at his absolute word. He’s not running,” says Ron Kaufman, Republican national committeeman for Massachusetts and a senior adviser to Mr. Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
“He’s been very clear – he loved running, gave it his best, and lost,” Mr. Kaufman told this reporter at the RNC’s summer meeting in Chicago last week. “Now he’s helping the Republicans win the Senate.”
Romney’s former finance chair, Spencer Zwick, has also put out word that Romney is focused on the 2014 midterms and to please stop the draft efforts, which are a distraction. Most significant among them is DraftMitt.org, organized by the chairman of the Utah Republican Party. The three-month-old site is closing in on 117,000 signatures. The campaign's Facebook page is also getting a lot of traffic.
"Look, the focus needs to be on the midterm elections. That's what Mitt is doing," Mr. Zwick told the Deseret News in Salt Lake City last month. "The organization has no merit. None."
But in Chicago last week, when asked about his draft effort, Utah GOP chairman James Evans was happy to talk.
“We are mindful of Romney insiders’ concerns, but we’re not going away,” says Mr. Evans.
He hasn’t shut down the site, but he did cancel the national launch he had planned in South Carolina – an early primary state – later this month. And he’s not actively raising money. There’s no “donate” button on the site. Any money that’s coming in to support his “low-cost operation,” Evans says, is from people with whom he already has a relationship.
“This is a grass-roots efforts,” Evans says, “and we want to demonstrate that, collectively, America got it wrong” in 2012, when President Obama beat Romney.
As head of the Utah GOP, Evans is well-positioned to keep his effort going. Utah is one of Romney’s “home bases.” He lived there for a time when he ran the 2002 Winter Olympics and owns a home there. Utah is also headquarter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which Romney is a prominent member.
But Evans is, in other ways, an unlikely champion. He’s originally from South Carolina, a Southern Baptist, and black – the only African-American state GOP chair in the continental US.
Evans says he told Romney directly that he wanted to launch a draft effort, and the former Massachusetts governor smiled and was polite.
“He was kind,” says Evans. “I appreciate that.”
What about Romney’s wife, Ann? Evans hasn’t asked her. “She would be kryptonite to the plan,” he says. “If I don’t ask, then she can’t say no.”
In interviews, other Republican leaders attending the Chicago RNC meeting either ruled out a Romney run, saying they take him at his word, or expressed interest, depending on how the still-forming 2016 field shakes out.
Several pointed out that, under RNC rules, there’s no way to “draft” someone onto the GOP ticket. Romney would have to consent to be on the ballot.
Others chalked up all the Romney talk to “buyer’s remorse,” now that Obama is struggling both internationally and at home and mired in low job approval ratings.
“People tell him that if we could do the election over today, we might have President Romney,” says Steve Duprey, GOP committeeman from New Hampshire, home of the first primary (and another of Romney’s home bases). “He’s flattered by those comments, but I will say this, I think Governor Romney has the luxury of making a decision later than anyone else."
So far, the early, prospective GOP field for 2016 is large and has no clear front-runner. Mr. Duprey suggested that, despite their protestations, close Romney supporters have said “never say never” and advised him to keep an eye on how the field shakes out.
“Is it an early breaking field toward one candidate? Is it a late-breaking field? Who’s in?” Duprey says.
“I will tell you personally, not based on knowledge…. I think it would be a smart move to look at it and consider running,” Duprey said of Romney. “I think if there’s anyone who would have an easier go of winning the nomination, it would be him. The more you do it, the better you get at it.”
Still, for a top-tier presidential prospect like Romney, a third try would be unusual. In 2008, he lost the GOP nomination to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, then won it in 2012. One comparison is to William Jennings Bryan, who won the Democratic nomination three times (1896, 1900, and 1908) but never reached the Oval Office.
“A better model for Mitt might actually be Richard Nixon, who lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960, then lost the California gubernatorial election in 1962, only to win the presidency in 1968,” writes Matt Lewis in the Daily Telegraph.