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What the heck is Mitt Romney doing?

Former Massachusetts Gov., and 2012 Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney in National Harbor, Md. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Mitt Romney sent a very clear message to a group of major donors in New York City on Friday: I'm thinking about running for president in 2016.  Then, as he knew they would, those donors spread that message to every media outlet in the country.

It's a stunning reversal from public -- and private -- assertions from Romney and his allies that, after two runs for president in 2008 and 2012, he was absolutely, 100 percent done with running.

And that reversal begs this question: What the heck is Mitt Romney doing?

Let's start by making clear what he's not doing: Running for president -- at least not yet.

No one -- not even those most bullish on the prospect of Romney, part 3 -- believe that Romney has made up his mind to run.  But, it's clear he is more interested in the possibility of a race than he was even a few months ago and wants to preserve the right to make his own decision.

What he sees -- and wants to stop -- is the momentum in the major donor community toward former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has been the most aggressive potential candidate in the 2016 field since the 2014 midterms ended. Bush, according to one report, has set a goal of raising $100 million over the first three months of 2015 in hopes of convincing lots of other candidates that making the race is a fool's errand.

By making very clear that he's on the fence about another race, Romney freezes some not-insignificant portion of the Republican major donor base -- especially in New York and New Jersey. Rather than signing on with Jeb in the next weeks or months, many of those money men and women will wait to see what Romney does before doing anything.

So, Romney is really buying himself -- and, whether intentionally or not, the rest of the potential field -- some time. He's taking the Bush pot off of boil and turning it down to simmer.

Which then raises this question: Why?

The simplest answer is because a part of Romney would still like to be president and he doesn't want someone else -- named Jeb Bush -- to foreclose that possibility for him.

Romney has not been shy -- privately but publicly reported -- that he has doubts about Bush's ability to win the Republican nomination and the lack of any other candidate in the GOP field who presents a real challenge to de facto Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

These two paragraphs from a Politico story by Ben White and Maggie Haberman back in December are telling:

[Romney] has said, among other things, that Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, would run into problems because of his business dealings, his work with the investment banks Lehman Brothers and Barclays, and his private equity investments.
“You saw what they did to me with Bain [Capital],” he has said, referring to the devastating attacks that his Republican rivals and President Barack Obama’s team launched against him for his time in private equity, according to three sources familiar with the line. “What do you think they’ll do to [Bush] over Barclays?”

While Bush has drawn mostly positive attention for stepping aside from various corporate and non-profit boards in advance of his likely bid, a glimpse of the potentially problematic issues Bush will have to navigate as a result of his work  -- on education policy among other things -- since leaving the governor's office in 2006 came out this week in a terrific story by WaPo's Lyndsey Layton

Writing of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, Layton says:

The foundation, from which Bush resigned as chairman last week as part of his preparations for a possible White House bid, has been criticized as a backdoor vehicle for major corporations to urge state officials to adopt policies that would enrich the companies.

To hear the Romney side tell it, his renewed interest in the race is entirely born from a selfless desire to see the party win back the White House after eight years in the political wilderness.  While that's likely part of his reasoning, no politician -- or human -- acts for entirely selfless reasons. Ever. Romney came close to being president in 2012 and likely believes that armed with the knowledge he has picked up over his last two bids he would be able to get to the top of the mountain this time around.

To me, Romney remains an unlikely 2016 candidate. But, he clearly can't get the idea out of his head (and his heart) and so wanted to buy himself some time to make the decision on his own timetable. Mission accomplished.