One of the themes of the retreat organized by former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney last weekend in Utah was “the future of American leadership,” but while schmoozing, sipping cocktails and skeet shooting, some attendees were very much looking to the past, lamenting what could have been.
It was a Romney revival, according to some reports about the private event at a posh resort in Park City, a political family reunion of sorts that by some descriptions was a Romney fan club meeting.
The conference drew members of his inner circle, former campaign advisers and aides as well as his big donors who wanted him in the White House.
The guest list included Republicans who might follow in Romney’s footsteps: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Senator Rand Paul, Representative Paul Ryan (Romney’s running mate in 2012) and Ohio Senator Rob Portman. Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio were invited but couldn't attend.
It was a chance for these possible future candidates to mingle with the deep pockets of their party and for Republicans to exchange ideas and plot strategy, but Romney's presence couldn't be ignored.
“Somebody here needs to start a ‘Draft Mitt’ movement,” Joe Scarborough, MSNBC host and a former member of Congress, reportedly said in a speech at the conference.
Romney? Run again? Yes, Republicans have been there and done that — twice now — but there are some in the party who haven’t given up and would wholeheartedly support a third try.
The conference served as a breeding ground for talk about another Romney run, but speculation has also been stoked by recent media interviews he’s given and his busy schedule of Republican events.
'I am not running'
He hasn’t been shy about taking on the likely Democratic contender Hillary Clinton, either, which has added to chatter about Romney’s intentions. In a campaign-style speech at the conference he criticized her performance as secretary of state, and he brought her up again in an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.
“I would love for him to run again,” Tom Rath, a senior Romney adviser, said in an interview Wednesday. “But I also want to grow hair and be six feet tall and neither of those things is likely to happen.”
Romney has essentially said he’s flattered by the attention, but no thanks.
“I think people make a lot of compliments to make us all feel good, and it’s very nice and heartening to have people say such generous things,” Romney said in a Washington Post article. “But I am not running, and they know it.”
“The unavailable is always the most attractive, right?” Romney said when explaining why there is buzz about him running again. “That goes in dating as well.”
In his Meet the Press appearance he dismissed talk of a “Draft Romney” movement as “kind of silly” and played up the strength of the Republican field of 2016 candidates.
So he’s not running again, but what Romney is doing is reinventing himself. After the majority of Americans rejected him in the 2012 election he slipped away from the spotlight, licked his wounds, and likely caught up on many missed hours of sleep. Now Romney is back, actively involved in the primary season, giving interviews, and reshaping his role in the party.
A documentary released in January on Netflix titled Mitt helped with his image makeover. It was an intimate, inside look at Romney’s two attempts to become president over a span of six years. Reviewers largely agreed that it portrayed Romney as more human and personable than he ever was on the campaign trail.
Rath said it gave Americans a better look at the real Romney, the one he knew. “He’s a really genuine, smart, honourable person and I think that that came out in the documentary,” Rath said.
An 'anchor' for the Republicans
A more relaxed Romney is speaking his mind and winning praise for it.
Much of what he said during the 2012 campaign was dismissed and belittled, but now there is a “growing appreciation for the judgments and insights he had,” Rath said, adding that Romney’s new role is “an elder in the party,” who can speak with authority.
He’s also filling a void. “Our party does not have at the moment, which is unusual for us in some ways, a natural next person to be the standard-bearer in the sense that the Democrats have secretary Clinton,” he said. “So in the absence of that presence, Mitt Romney is being able to pick his spots, go where he wants, talk about things he’s interested in, that he has credibility on.”
“It’s nothing more than that, he’s trying to be a good soldier to a party he led the last time.”
Former Utah governor Michael Leavitt is another Romney fan who was at the weekend retreat and agrees he would love to see him run again, but accepts his decision.
“I’m just delighted to see his voice come back,” he said in an interview. It’s a voice people know and trust, he continued. “I think he is a voice of steadiness and of certainty and of safety right now during a period when no one else seems quite big enough to do this.”
Leavitt is confident that solid Republican nominees for 2016 will emerge, but it’s work in progress. In the meantime, he described Romney as an “anchor” the party can hold on to while the midterms are fought and potential candidates prepare for what lies ahead.
“People now see him in a different way. He’s not a presidential aspirant, he is now a very seasoned person who has unique knowledge of the country and a unique perspective on the process,” he said.
The irony of a failed presidential candidate giving advice to his party on how to win the next election has not gone unnoticed by some political watchers, who have noted that buzz about a third Romney run says more about the 2016 field than it does about Romney.