PARK CITY, Utah — Mitt Romney’s ideas summit here was intended to be a passing of the torch to the Republican Party’s would-be saviors, with five potential 2016 presidential candidates jetting in to schmooze with many of the GOP’s biggest donors and present their agendas for the country’s future.
Instead, the scene at a luxury resort in the Rocky Mountains quickly became a Romney revival. Minutes after the 2012 Republican presidential nominee welcomed his 300 guests, Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC host and former GOP congressman, urged them to begin a “Draft Romney” movement in 2016.
“This is the only person that can fill the stage,” Scarborough said at the opening-night private dinner, according to attendees.
The Republican elite rose early Friday morning to go skeet shooting with possible 2016 hopeful Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.). Then, over breakfast, they questioned Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), another potential candidate, about how he thinks he could defeat the expected Democratic front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Yet in hallway chats and over cocktails, they’ve been abuzz about recruiting someone else — Romney — into his third presidential race.
“Everybody realizes we’re devoid of leadership in D.C.,” said Harold Hamm, a billionaire energy investor who was one of Romney’s biggest fundraisers in 2012. “Everybody would encourage him to consider it again.”
Former Utah governor Michael Leavitt, a Romney confidant, told reporters, “I’d be for it, but it’s not my decision.” And George P. Shultz, secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, said of Romney in his talk here, “I wish we could call him Mr. President.”
Romney even got encouragement from a Democrat, former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, who told reporters, “He would be a giant in a field of midgets.”
The heightened interest in Romney among the business leaders, donors and policy wonks gathering in Park City this weekend speaks volumes about their anxiety at the disarray in the Republican Party. There is no clear 2016 front-runner, and there is deep doubt about the two leading establishment favorites.
Donors here said they fear New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is permanently damaged by the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal. And while many would back former Florida governor Jeb Bush, they believe he will not run.
Enter Romney, who stoked the speculation Friday by delivering a sweeping, campaign-style speech condemning President Obama’s foreign policy and serving up biting critiques of Clinton, the overwhelming favorite for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
“The Obama-Biden-Hillary Clinton foreign policy is a monumental bust,” Romney said.
He referred to Clinton’s comments this week that Russian President Vladimir Putin “might not be happy” when he reads her new book. “Please — this is from a woman who was gushing with smiles when she presented a minion of Vladimir Putin with that red ‘reset’ button,” Romney said, referring to an episode recounted by Clinton when the Obama administration was seeking greater cooperation with Russia.
Romney has been positioning himself as an elder statesman and establishment patriarch. Pressed by reporters about a 2016 campaign, Romney insisted he has no interest.
“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,” he said. “But I am not running, and they know it.”
Then how does he explain the buzz here?
“The unavailable is always the most attractive, right?” Romney said. “That goes in dating as well.”
Asked about the 2016 chatter, Romney’s eldest son, Tagg, burst into a big smile but said nothing. Scott Romney, Mitt’s older brother, smiled, too, but said: “It’s a lot of crazy speculation.”
Spencer Zwick, who organized the summit and in 2012 served as Romney’s national finance chairman, said many attendees believe if the election were held today, Romney would defeat Obama handily.
“There’s a sense of buyer’s remorse — a sense of, ‘Oh, what could have been?’ ” he said.
Zwick added, “This is a powerful group of people. How do we use them to make sure we win against Hillary Clinton? That seems unclear because these people don’t know where to go.”
Anthony Scaramucci, a prominent investor who traveled the country raising money for Romney in 2012, said nobody in the 2016 field has motivated him to do the same.
“We’re in sort of a limbo period,” Scaramucci said. “The Republican Party is in a very big need of re-engineering . . . unless you identify who the strong leader is to knit that coalition together, but I don’t see it.”
Some Republicans here tried to tamp down the Romney 2016 buzz and look to the future.
“Mitt has made it clear that he is not running,” said Bobbie Kilberg, a leading GOP donor from Northern Virginia. “I think folks should take him at his word.”
Paul, Ryan and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) addressed the summit, and Christie is due here Saturday. Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) were invited but declined, citing scheduling conflicts. Two key Bush associates, fundraiser Jack Oliver and strategist Ana Navarro, worked the crowd, however.
The establishment lights here eyed Paul with interest. He made the case that he is growing the Republican Party and talked about his recent appearances before black and liberal audiences.
When a donor asked whether Clinton was beatable, Paul said he believed she was “really vulnerable” on foreign policy and for being too hawkish, according to one attendee.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Romney rival in 2008, spoke as well. He was sharply partisan — he said sending Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) “to the back of the room” is “the greatest single gift we can give to the people of America this year” — but also called for more compromise.
At day’s end, the donors heard from Ryan, who enjoys favorite-son status with the crowd after being Romney’s vice presidential running mate in 2012.
But Ryan’s interest in a 2016 run is unclear. When a reporter asked what he thought of Clinton, Ryan said only, “What Mitt said.”