Why Mitt Romney 2016 is gaining steam, even though Mitt isn't on board

Mitt Romney was in Iowa last week, fueling 2016 talk despite indications he won't run. The speculation is a sign of how unsettled the Republican field remains.

Mary Willie/The Register/AP
Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney campaigns for Joni Ernst at Iowa Farm Bureau Headquarters in West Des Moines, Iowa, Sunday.

Mitt Romney arrived in Iowa over the weekend as a former Republican presidential candidate and left as a possible future presidential candidate.

Iowa is a traditional proving ground for presidential candidates, and prominent Republicans have been testing the waters there for the past 18 months. Since the start of 2013, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky has visited the state four times, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have visited the state seven times each.

Mr. Romney appeared in the battleground state for only the second time since his 2012 election defeat, and both were to campaign for GOP Senate candidate Joni Ernst. But the former Massachusetts governor ended up igniting increased speculation over whether he will join the presidential race for the third consecutive time after losing to President Obama in 2012 and to Sen. John McCain in the 2008 Republican primary.

Publicly, Romney appears to have been warming to the idea in recent months. His answers to questions about a 2016 run have shifted from "Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no" in January to "we'll see what happens" last month. And after his recent trip across Iowa, he has emerged with not only strong support among some prominent GOP figures, but strong support in Iowa polls as well.

A Des Moines Register-Bloomberg Politics poll released during the weekend showed that, if the presidential election were held today, Democrat Hillary Clinton would have an edge over every Republican in the field except one: Romney, who beat out Clinton 44 percent to 43 percent. A poll in August from USA Today-Suffolk University showed Romney with a huge lead over other GOP candidates, with 35 percent of likely Iowa Republican caucus voters going for Romney and no other candidate in double-digits.

And Romney has also received some encouragement from within the GOP, including Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin, Romney's 2012 running mate, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) told The Washington Post that "the emerging class of Republican candidates is untested and unproven."

"If [Romney] runs, I believe he could win the nomination and the general election. It'd be the right person at the right time, and I would encourage him to do it," Mr. Pawlenty added.

Despite Romney's two unsuccessful presidential bids, 2016 might be the right time, particularly if former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) decides not to run, some pundits say. Other like Republican candidates, like Senators Cruz and Paul, have little experience on presidential campaigns and do not enjoy the levels of support among "establishment" Republicans that Romney does. Mr. Bush would be Romney's main competitor for the support of establishment Republicans, and if Bush opts out, the path for Romney could be clear.

And Romney has had a busy few weeks prior to his Iowa trip, meeting privately with supporters and donors. On Sept. 23 he visited Joe Ricketts, an investor who finances the Ending Spending super political action committee, and he also took part in an Oct. 6 Republican fundraising dinner at the Manhattan apartment of New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, according to The Washington Post.

Romney's most recent comments have him leaning away from a third run. He dodged questions from reporters in Iowa about a 2016 run, and at a campaign stop over the weekend he aimed a joke at President Obama after telling the crowd: "They say if you're running for office you shouldn't tell jokes. But I'm not running for office." Earlier Tuesday, his wife, Ann, said the entire Romney family was not interested in another presidential run.

"Not only Mitt and I are done, but the kids are done. Done. Done. Done," she said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

But so long as Romney remains popular among Republicans, and another established GOP candidate doesn't appear, it's likely the Romney question will continue to be asked. As Pawlenty noted, Ronald Reagan was elected on his third attempt.

"Circumstances can change," Romney said last month in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Spencer Zwick, Romney's former national finance chairman, told The Washington Post that donors and supporters were calling him daily about it.

"There are still plenty of donors who hope circumstances will change and there will be an opportunity for Romney to run again," Mr. Zwick said.

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