Many observers expected Mitt Romney to slink away from politics after his defeat in the 2012 presidential election, but the former Massachusetts governor has instead embraced a new role as an elder statesman and kingmaker within the Republican Party.
While he has shied away from open campaigning, Mr. Romney has taken to tacitly supporting the more moderate, establishment-friendly candidates in a packed and ideologically tangled field.
“Romney, who flirted with a third presidential run early this year, fancies himself a mentor to the candidates he’d most like to see occupy the White House in his stead,” wrote Kyle Cheney and Kenneth Vogel in Politico.
In June, Romney said on Meet the Press that his biggest mistake in 2012 was not connecting minority voters with conservative policies, and he encouraged current candidates to prioritize reaching out to these populations.
Romney sees a need to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party by bringing it closer in line with the traditional party values of a strong foreign policy and limited government and away from some of the divisive rhetoric that has split the GOP and alienated general election voters.
But the question remains whether he will be able to deliver votes or campaign funds to his chosen heirs.
Last weekend, Romney hosted a “slumber party” at his New Hampshire vacation home with GOP presidential hopefuls Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Romney also broke bread with Jeb Bush and family in Kennebunkport, Maine, on Monday.
Although he said they strayed away from politics in their discussions and delved more into sports talk, Romney’s strong political connections and fundraising infrastructure – especially in the key early primary state of New Hampshire – were not lost on the candidates vying for the Oval Office.
And if the 2014 midterm elections are any indication, Romney’s presence in certain candidates’ corners could bode well for their success in upcoming races.
During the midterms, Romney spent his time fundraising and stumping for many successful candidates and Republican up-and-comers, helping them emerge from tough primary contests. He threw his backing behind Sen. Joni Ernst in March 2014 in Iowa's crowded primary, for example, as well as campaigning for her in the state last fall.
“I think a lot of people questioned what his role was going to be going forward, but he proved to be critical to Republican efforts in 2014, raising millions of dollars and helping electable conservatives win in the primaries,” Ryan Williams, a former Romney spokesman and current political consultant told The Hill.
Indeed, Romney's favored candidates are hoping for a similar boost to get them through a similarly crowded field.
"What matters most to me is that [Romney’s] a resource for me," Governor Christie told CNN after the New Hampshire sleepover. "And he's a resource for our party, someone who has been doing this process twice. He's been our nominee. That's somebody who you want to talk to and listen to, if you're someone who's running for the first time, like I am."
Romney has also taken a leadership position on many of the issues that the 2016 candidate field have been afraid to touch.
In the wake of the church shooting in Charleston, he was the first prominent Republican to call for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state Capitol, setting off a flurry of concurring statements from GOP presidential hopefuls.
After GOP candidate Donald Trump’s controversial comments about Mexican immigrants, Romney was again among the first to take a firm stance against them, calling the remarks a “severe error.”
“He was the first one to come out strongly against the Confederate flag. And it was after that that a lot of candidates felt emboldened to say 'Me, too,' ” said The Atlantic’s Molly Ball on Face the Nation. "And I think we're seeing that with Trump, too. He came out and said, 'No, we don't like this, this is wrong.' And then a lot of the candidates followed him.”
Mr. Williams, the former Romney spokesman, argues that this bespeaks the former Republican nominee's new role in the party.
“Our party has not had a national leader for some time. We haven’t been in the White House since 2008,” he said. “Governor Romney has stepped up.”