Mitt Romney forcefully declared his interest in a third presidential run to a room full of powerful Republican donors Friday, disrupting the fluid 2016 GOP field as would-be rival Jeb Bush was moving swiftly to consolidate establishment support.
Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, has been mulling another campaign for several months, but his comments Friday marked a clear step forward in his thinking and come amid mounting tensions between the Romney and Bush camps.
“I want to be president,” Romney told about 30 donors in New York. He said that his wife, Ann — who last fall said she was emphatically against a run — had changed her mind and was now “very encouraging,” although their five sons remain split, according to multiple attendees.
Advisers said Romney discussed the race with his family over the holidays, when they spent time skiing in Park City, Utah, but he insisted that he has not made up his mind whether to run. Advisers said he recognizes that he would not be able to waltz into the nomination and that the intra-party competition is shaping up to be stiffer in next year’s primaries than it was in 2012.
Bush’s sudden focus on the race in recent weeks has put pressure on Romney to decide soon. Romney has been in regular conversations with major donors, some of whom are pushing him to run again, but confidants have also warned him that his window of opportunity could shut if he does not declare his intentions within 30 to 60 days.
Romney’s comments at Friday’s meeting, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, electrified the world of Republican financiers, who are being courted aggressively by Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and other hopefuls. Romney’s dalliance could freeze enough donors to spoil Bush’s plan to post an intimidatingly huge first-quarter fundraising haul this spring.
“What he has said to me before is, ‘I am preserving my options.’ What he is now saying is, ‘I am seriously considering a run,’ ” said Bobbie Kilberg, a top donor from Virginia who raised millions of dollars for Romney’s 2012 bid. She was briefed by attendees on Romney’s Friday comments. “And he said that in a room with 30 people. That is a different degree of intensity.”
Striving to keep his network intact, Romney on Friday also e-mailed his donors with invitations to his fourth annual policy summit in Park City, scheduled for June 11-13. Called the E2 Summit, the event is billed as an “intimate” gathering of Wall Street titans, politicos and former government officials.
Romney’s associates said that he has become restless since conceding to President Obama on a cold night in Boston two years ago. Romney’s motivation to run again stems from a lingering dissatisfaction with Obama’s policies, both economic and foreign, and a belief that he would have set the country on a better course.
Romney also harbors doubts that Bush and other Republican contenders can defeat likely Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, advisers said, and is wary in particular about Bush’s political skills.
“I believe Mitt Romney is too much of a patriot to sit on the sidelines and concede the presidency to Hillary Clinton or [Massachusetts Sen.] Elizabeth Warren when he knows that he can fix the country,” said Spencer Zwick, Romney’s 2012 national finance chairman, who accompanied Romney to Friday’s New York meeting.
“I think, at the end of the day, he believes he could actually make a difference,” Zwick said. “He won’t make a decision to run for president based on who else is in the race. He will make a decision based on his own desire and his own abilities.”
Romney’s advisers said he is approaching the decision pragmatically. “He does not go into things looking through rose-colored glasses,” said one Romney adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk candidly.
This adviser said Romney is far from having his mind made up: “He knows he’ll have to earn it, and he believes in that; that the presidency is too important to hand it over to somebody. He doesn’t talk like that at all. He wants to go out and make his case to the American people and see what happens. But he’s not that far.”
One immediate hurdle Romney would face is that many of the prominent donors that backed his last campaign, as well as some senior operatives who worked for him before, have already been scooped up by Bush or other candidates. GOP lawyer Charlie Spies, who co-founded the pro-Romney super PAC Restore our Future, is now representing Bush’s leadership committee, the Right to Rise PAC, as well as a pro-Bush super PAC of the same name.
Some Republicans have sharply criticized him since 2012 over his missteps on the campaign trail and his final performance — he lost every swing state except North Carolina and finished with 206 electoral votes to Obama’s 332. Democrats successfully cast him as out of touch with the middle class after he was caught on video telling wealthy donors that 47 percent of Americans do not take personal responsibility for their lives.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), a 2016 presidential hopeful, assailed Romney shortly after the 2012 election: “We have to stop dividing the American voters. We need to go after 100 percent of the votes, not 53 percent.” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), also eyeing a 2016 run, wrote in his 2013 book that Romney did a “lousy job” talking about the economy “in a way that is relevant to people’s lives.”
Friday’s declaration of interest by Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and businessman, was not welcomed by all of his former allies — especially those close to the Bush family.
“Frankly, he has been bypassed by Jeb,” said Doug Gross, Romney’s 2008 Iowa campaign chairman and longtime Bush ally. “The time for Governor Romney has probably passed. He has already lost twice. The jury is very much out on whether Republican voters would go with him again.”
Romney’s relationship with Bush’s orbit has evolved from warm to strained in recent months. Bush’s chief political strategist is Mike Murphy, who also is close to Romney and advised his successful 2002 gubernatorial campaign. Last year, Murphy helped Romney on TV ads for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, shooting on a California set that bore more than a passing resemblance to the Oval Office.
But as Bush has ramped up his own efforts, Romney’s coziness with Murphy has dissipated. They last met shortly before Christmas, when Romney asked Murphy about preparations for Bush’s campaign and told Murphy he had not ruled out a bid of his own, according to Romney backers with knowledge of the conversation.
Romney has been talking frequently with Stuart Stevens, his top 2012 strategist and a Murphy rival, while keeping a watchful eye on Bush’s moves to woo Romney’s former supporters. On Friday, Bush was in Boston, Romney’s home base where he headquartered his past campaigns, trying to persuade Romney donors to get behind his effort.
Veteran GOP consultant Ed Rollins said, “Romney knows that he can block donors from going to Bush if he sends a clear enough message.”
“If you put Romney and Bush head to head, I think Romney probably wins that fight,” Rollins said. “Nobody is wholesale walking away from him. The donor base and operatives are still there. Bush thought he’d have an open field to easily beat Christie. Romney, if he gets in, changes that plan.”
On Wednesday, Romney lectured at Stanford University in a class titled “Understanding the 2016 Campaign from Start to Finish,” which is taught by his former policy director, Lanhee Chen. Romney later had dinner in Menlo Park, Calif., with Chen, former spokeswoman Andrea Saul and former campaign lawyers Ben Ginsberg and Katie Biber Chen.
Romney has remained close to such power brokers as New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, a Republican fundraiser who co-chaired Romney’s 2012 campaign and who attended Friday’s meeting.
“When I walked into Woody’s box a few weeks ago, Romney was sitting there in a turtleneck,” recalled former New Jersey governor Tom Kean. “He was in good spirits.”
Dan Balz contributed to this report.