Mitt Romney is moving quickly to reassemble his national political network, calling former aides, donors and other supporters over the weekend and on Monday in a concerted push to signal his seriousness about possibly launching a 2016 presidential campaign.
Romney’s message, as he told one senior Republican, was that he “almost certainly will” make what would be his third bid for the White House. His aggressive outreach came as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — Romney’s 2012 vice presidential running mate and the newly installed chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee — announced Monday that he would not seek the presidency in 2016.
Romney’s activity indicates that his declaration of interest Friday to a group of 30 donors in New York was more than the release of a trial balloon. Instead, it was the start of a deliberate effort by the 2012 nominee to carve out space for himself in an emerging 2016 field also likely to include former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Romney has worked the phones over the past few days, calling an array of key allies to discuss his potential 2016 campaign. Among them was Ryan, whom Romney phoned over the weekend to inform him personally of his plans to probably run. Ryan was encouraging, people with knowledge of the calls said.
Other Republicans with whom Romney spoke recently include Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Rob Portman (Ohio), former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, Hewlett-Packard chief executive Meg Whitman, former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, former Missouri senator Jim Talent and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah).
In the conversations, Romney said he is intent on running to the right of Bush, who also is working vigorously to court donors and other party establishment figures for a 2016 bid. Romney has tried to assure conservatives that he shares their views on immigration and tax policy — and that should he enter the race, he will not forsake party orthodoxy.
On New Year’s Eve, Romney welcomed Laura Ingraham, the firebrand conservative and nationally syndicated talk-radio host, to his ski home in Deer Valley, Utah. Romney served a light lunch to Ingraham and her family as they spent more than an hour discussing politics and policy, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
“He was relaxed, reflective and was interested in hearing my thoughts on the American working class,” Ingraham said in an e-mail Monday. “He was fully engaged and up to speed on everything happening on [the] domestic and international front. To me, it didn’t seem like he was content to be just a passive player in American politics.”
Romney’s undertaking to re-engage and pursue anew the GOP’s leading financial and political players began Friday, when he told a private gathering of donors, “I want to be president.” He also told them that his wife, Ann, was “very encouraging” of another campaign.
Romney is considering attending this week’s meeting of the Republican National Committee in San Diego and is working on a new message about economic empowerment, advisers said.
“He’s a lot more focused in these calls on developing a path to victory and talking through a message, rather than talking about money,” said Spencer Zwick, Romney’s 2012 national finance chairman. “Mitt Romney has proven that he can raise the money.”
This comes as Bush — another favorite of the Republican elite — is holding meetings with party leaders and financiers as he explores his campaign. Bush and Romney have overlapping political circles.
Many of Romney’s past supporters may feel torn — not only between him and Bush but also among Christie, Walker, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and other Republicans who are weighing a run. Some already have publicly aligned with Bush and others.
“They’re competing hard and it’s going to get complicated for Bush,” said former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “But Romney still has to prove that he has the ability to reach out to ordinary, hardworking people and emote — smiling with one eye and crying with the other.”
Romney’s outreach extends beyond his cheerleaders to onetime foes as well. He called Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who relentlessly attacked Romney on the stump and debate stage in 2012 during his presidential run. Gingrich said he told Romney, “There are no front-runners” in the 2016 race. “We have runners, but no front-runners.”
Romney is measuring how much of his 2012 operation would gear up behind him again. He is particularly intent on rebuilding his past political infrastructure in New Hampshire, where he owns a vacation home in Wolfeboro. The state, which holds the first presidential primary, ignited his 2012 campaign when he won it resoundingly in a crowded field.
As of Monday, Romney had secured the backing of his top two New Hampshire-based advisers, Thomas D. Rath and Jim Merrill.
“He called me right after the Patriots beat the Ravens, so we were both in good moods,” Merrill said. “It was a good conversation. He was very clear that he is seriously considering a run. I’ve been with Mitt Romney since March 2006, so if he decides to do it, I’ll be there for him.” Rath, a former New Hampshire state attorney general, concurred in a separate interview: “I’ve been with Mitt Romney for eight years. If he’s in, I’ll make the coffee or drive the car — whatever he needs.”
Romney also has called Brown, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate from New Hampshire in 2014, as well as former governor John Sununu, who was a surrogate for Romney in 2012 but has close ties to the Bush family after serving as chief of staff under then-president George H.W. Bush.
Judd Gregg, a former U.S. senator from New Hampshire who backed Romney in 2008 and 2012, said, “He’s reaching out to people. My sense is he feels strongly he has an opportunity to do what was incomplete last time. He figures there’s a lot of buyer’s remorse now and that his message is a good message and it’ll resonate.”
Romney is also paying attention to Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation caucuses, calling his former Iowa strategist, David Kochel. Romney, however, has not connected with Iowa Republican Sens. Charles E. Grassley or Joni Ernst. “I haven’t talked to him in two years,” Grassley said Monday.
One Romney adviser, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said, “Mitt’s a very restless character. He is not the type to retire happily, to read books on the beach. . . . He believes he has something to offer the country and the only way he can do that is by running for president again.”
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the GOP presidential nominee in 2008, was skeptical of a Romney candidacy and endorsed the idea of a “dark horse” run by his longtime friend in the Senate, Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.).
Eric Fehrnstrom, a former Romney spokesman, ticked through issues that he said were motivating Romney to try again. “At home our economy is still not as strong as it could be,” he said. “Long-term growth is in doubt. And around the world there’s really deep concern that America’s leadership has unraveled and hostile forces have filled that vacuum.”
Romney’s national finance network — which raised roughly $1 billion on his behalf for the 2012 campaign — came alive in the hours after he declared his interest in a 2016 bid.
“When the news broke Friday, my phone started blowing up with texts, calls and e-mails from people that had donated to the campaign before and pledging their help,” said Travis Hawkes, a Republican donor in Idaho who served on Romney’s national finance council. “They say, ‘Let me know when you need my credit card number.’ My response to everyone has been, ‘Let’s just slow down and see what happens.’ ”
“I don’t know, man, it’s a free country,” McCain said of a possible Romney campaign in 2016. “I thought there was no education in the second kick of a mule. . . . I respect his judgment, he’s a strong leader.”
Dan Balz, Matea Gold and Paul Kane contributed to this report.