PARK CITY, Utah -- The Republican Party is in turmoil and in strode its would-be saviors, wheeling their bags through the crowded Delta terminal at Washington Reagan National Airport on Thursday afternoon to escape the stormy capital for a long weekend in the Rocky Mountains.
Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky firebrand methodically plotting a 2016 presidential campaign, talked up his golf game. “I’m a guy with an old neck problem right now,” he quipped, but “I could probably play the president.”
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the GOP’s wonk-hero and 2012 vice presidential nominee, arrived with his wife, Janna. And when Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio showed up, Ryan pulled out of his duffel bag the “lucky Buckeye” that Portman gave him on the campaign trail two years ago. Paul jokingly asked Ryan, if the brown nut was so lucky, “What did you wish for?”
These three men -- as well three other Republican leaders, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee -- are coming together in Park City, Utah, to celebrate the revival of Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, and to schmooze with some of his most important campaign donors, policy advisers and political intimates.
Two years after his defeat to President Obama, Romney is positioning himself as an elder statesman and patriarch of the GOP’s business-friendly establishment. Although he categorically denies interest in running again, Romney has been working diligently to rebuild the Republican Party and help set it on a course to regain the White House in 2016.
Central to Romney’s mission is the annual “ideas summit” he hosts in Park City, where presidential hopefuls, business leaders, professional athletes and other luminaries are coming together to mingle at a luxury resort.
The private gathering of roughly 250 people, which began Thursday night, includes speeches by Romney and the potential 2016 candidates as well as addresses and panel sessions by former Treasury secretary Hank Paulson, former secretary of state George P. Schultz, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell and other dignitaries.
“As somebody who cares very deeply about the country as I do, I’m going to keep on battling for the kind of ideas and values I think will make a difference,” Romney said Thursday afternoon on Fox News. “I’m pleased that many people find this a compelling conference where we exchange ideas and hopefully have an impact.”
Fresh on attendees’ minds is the stunning defeat in Virginia this week of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to an insurgent conservative primary challenger. Many of the donors attending Romney’s summit are business-minded Republicans who are deeply concerned that the party’s internecine feuding could prevent it from winning back the White House.
“What I would like to see in Park City is individuals who have specific, positive policy initiatives that can ensure the future for my kids and grandkids and that are not based on fear and right-wing ideology,” said Bobbie Kilberg, a prominent Romney fundraiser from Northern Virginia. “Both Paul Ryan and Chris Christie are two people who do that, and that’s what I’m looking for. I’m not looking for an appeal to a right-wing faction of the Republican Party.”
The summit is sponsored by Solamere Capital, the private equity firm founded by Romney’s son, Tagg, and his campaign finance chairman, Spencer Zwick. Attendees pay a registration fee.
The summit’s theme this year is “American Leadership at Home and Abroad,” and organizers said to expect a heavy focus on national security issues. But in addition to high-minded discussion, guests are invited to participate in what organizers call “enthusiast activities”: mountain biking with Portman, shooting with Ryan or hiking with Romney, to name three.
High-profile business leaders were expected to attend, including Hewlett-Packard chief executive Meg Whitman, former Wal-Mart chief executive Lee Scott, Univision chief executive Randy Falco, oil investors Harold Hamm and L.E. Simmons, and investor Anthony Scaramucci. Also attending is Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
Romney’s wife, Ann, and their family are around all weekend, as are some of Romney’s closest former advisers and aides, including Beth Myers, who ran his vice presidential search, campaign counsel Ben Ginsberg and Garrett Jackson, the personal aide at Romney’s side throughout 2012. Myers and Zwick, as well as aide Matt Waldrip, helped organize the summit.
Technically, the summit is nonpartisan. Former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat eyeing a 2016 presidential run, formed a friendship with Romney during a joint trip to Afghanistan while the two were governors and is attending, as is Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (D).
But most attendees are partisan Republicans. And friends of Romney’s said the former Massachusetts governor is expected to deliver a sharp rebuke of Obama’s foreign policy in his remarks to the gathering on Friday morning.
In a brief interview as he waited for the flight to Utah, Ryan said he and Janna were excited to reunite with Mitt and Ann Romney.
“That’s mostly what we’re looking forward to,” Ryan said. Although he added that he would talk to attendees about the “state of affairs in the country and what I think it’s going to take to get us back on track.”
Ryan also was looking forward to taking donors shooting.
“I’m a hunter,” Ryan said. “I shoot a lot. That’s my natural thing. Skeet or trap – I’m not sure which of the two we’re doing.”
Ryan, Portman and Paul’s flight to Salt Lake City was crowded with Republican elites. Also on board, although not all attending Romney’s summit, were Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Jim Risch (Idaho), Rep. Raul Labrador (Idaho), GOP strategist Terry Hunt, Paulson, Ginsberg and Kilberg.
Paul said he plans to give a speech laying out why “the party needs to be bigger and better and bolder.”
“Our base is not big enough to win national elections and we have to reach out to new people, and that means African Americans, Hispanics, young people, single women,” Paul said in an interview. “We have to have a message that we don’t dilute or make no longer consistent with who we are, but that we take elements that really do appeal to people.”
This is a theme Paul has been talking about across the country in recent months.
“I probably won’t come up with anything brand new, unless I can come up with big, clever joke between now and then,” Paul said, laughing, before boarding the flight.