Welcome to the Romney primary
Mitt Romney, the man Republicans were so quick to dismiss after his failed 2012 presidential bid, is suddenly in high demand among his GOP colleagues.
The former Massachusetts governor and his wife, Ann, dropped in for “a fun and informal” lunch Monday with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and his wife, Columba, at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, following through on an invitation extended by the Bush family months ago.
The meeting followed an overnight sojourn this weekend by Chris Christie and Marco Rubio at the Romney’s vacation home in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, on the eve of their appearance in the town’s July Fourth parade. The two candidates and their families joined the Romneys on their boat on 72-square-mile Lake Winnipesaukee.
Aides familiar with the Bush visit stressed it was purely a social occasion, and that the families talked not only about policy but also the triumphant finish of the U.S. women’s team in the World Cup — noting that they were joined by President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, as well as Jeb Bush’s son, George P. Bush, and his wife, Amanda. And everyone at the Christie-Rubio gathering similarly dismissed endorsement speculation by saying they passed the evening talking sports over a Fourth of July barbecue of hot dogs, baked beans and potato salad.
Since forgoing a third presidential bid in January, Romney has insisted he has no interest in being a kingmaker in the 2016 race. But as the contenders jockey for his favor — and, in some cases, chase his lead on thorny issues — it’s beginning to look like the 2016 Romney primary is well underway.
And he seems more liberated to speak out than when he was fighting for the White House himself.
“Given the chaos that’s going on on the Republican side of things, he has some ability to bring some order to the chaos and help remind people what big issues actually do matter — and to be a little bit of a rudder for these candidates, who he recognizes can sometimes get seared by the winds of the primary process,” said GOP strategist Katie Packer, who was Romney’s deputy campaign manager in 2012.
It is an ironic twist for a man once criticized as the very definition of the vanilla candidate, calibrated and cautious at every turn when he was the Republican presidential nominee in 2012.
Romney was one of the first prominent Republicans to bluntly call for taking down the Confederate flag in front of the South Carolina state capitol after the racially motivated massacre of nine people at a Charleston church last month.
“On the Confederate flag issue, he wanted to be out early making a strong statement — saying this is the right thing to do, irregardless of the South Carolina primary,” Packer said. “He sees an opportunity for himself to be the voice of reason in the chaos.”
Over the weekend, he denounced Donald Trump’s suggestion that immigrants coming across the border from Mexico were rapists and criminals, saying the remarks were harmful to the image of the Republican Party.
“I think he made a severe error in saying what he did about Mexican-Americans and I feel it was unfortunate,” Romney said.
Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s longtime adviser and close associate, said the most likely scenario for the primary “is that he will remain neutral until we have a presumptive nominee.”
“The reason for that is because there’s a bunch of candidates who are close to Mitt on the issues — and if they’re all competing with one another, he’s going to stay out of it,” he said.
Still, as much as the contenders might like an early endorsement, Romney seems far more interested in weighing in on the issues that matter to him right now.
On Saturday in Wolfeboro, Romney told reporters that he had “no plans to get behind anybody,” noting that many of them had helped him during his campaign.
“I’m going to be as loyal to them as they were to me,” he said.
Though many of the candidates frequently call on Romney for counsel, he declined to offer his advice — at least publicly — on how they should conduct their campaigns.
‘Make their own mistakes’
“These guys will make their own mistakes,” he quipped to reporters. “Hopefully they won’t follow mine.”
With many friends in the race, he has also been generous in offering introductions to the donors who raised more than a billion dollars to power his 2012 run for the presidency. More than a half dozen 2016 candidates attended his annual “Experts & Enthusiasts” summit in Park City, Utah, where they were given entrée to donors who could help their respective bids.
In an interview with Fox’s Megyn Kelly from Deer Valley, Utah, before that donor retreat in June, Romney insisted he would stay “forcefully neutral” in the Republican primary and would not give his stamp of approval to any of the contenders.
He told reporters at the “E2” summit that there were as many as eight GOP candidates who shared similar views on the issues and described a narrow scenario in which he would endorse. He might weigh in, he said, if the race got down to two contenders — and one of them came far closer to sharing his vision for America than the other.
“How it will sort out among those people, time will tell,” Romney told reporters at the gathering in Park City. “You just can’t predict who is gonna star in the debates, who is going to put in the time in New Hampshire with all of the town meetings, who is going to visit the different counties of Iowa and then emerge.”
“I think it will probably narrow down at some point to a smaller group than 15, but I don’t know who those (candidates) will be. I’m not sure they’ll all be the eight that I’m closest to from a policy standpoint, it may be some I have a little more distance from,” he said.
Romney has taken pains not to show favoritism, but he is clearly closer to candidates like Rubio — who worked hard for Romney from the early days of his campaign — than Jeb Bush, with whom he shares a cordial but not close relationship.
For now, his former advisers say he is pleased with the strength of the field and content to just watch the show — particularly on the Democratic side, where Bernie Sanders seems to be closing in on Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“I thought on the other side it would be kind of boring,” he said this weekend, “but Bernie Sanders has made it kind of exciting, so we’ll see.”
CNN’s Cassie Spodak and Greg Wallace contributed to this report.