Romney's sudden move into 2016 talks a 'conundrum' for some former aides

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney speaks in Raleigh, North Carolina on October 29, 2014. (REUTERS/Chris Keane)

WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney has stopped Jeb Bush from locking down a significant faction of deep-pocketed Republican donors and top presidential campaign staffers for the moment. 

But money and talent won’t stay frozen for long. And multiple Republican insiders said Monday that Romney has a short window of time in which he has to make a decision about whether to mount a third run for the White House — or let the dream of the presidency go forever.

One 2012 Romney aide said the former Massachusetts governor might need to make up his mind in the next week. Most people who spoke with Yahoo News said Romney probably can wait a few weeks before the 2012 Republican presidential nominee starts losing support he’d need to mount a credible campaign. One GOP operative pegged Romney’s speech at Mississippi State University on Jan. 28 as a deadline of sorts. 

Operatives who are being courted by both Romney and former Florida governor Jeb Bush have told Romney that the clock is ticking. 

“I told him you can’t just sit out there and wait on this thing and expect people to stand pat,” said one Republican who worked for Romney in 2012. “He needs to pull the trigger in the next couple of weeks.”

"Bush is pushing hard. He’s running."

Now, just as Bush was provoked by talk that Romney was considering a run and made a surprise mid-December announcement about actively exploring a run for president, Romney has been flushed out into the open by Bush’s flurry of activity over the past month. 

In particular, Bush’s meetings last week with major GOP donors got the attention of Romney advisers. 

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) addresses the Wall Street Journal CEO Council in Washington December 1, 2014. (Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS)

“[Romney’s] theory of the race was that he could wait for a while and see if the field cracked up, and if it did and there was fragmentation and chaos there would be an opening for someone like him — a unifying force, tested, vetted. That theory works so long as there’s no strong candidates with equally unifying potential. I think he saw that potential in Jeb. I just don’t think he thought Jeb was going to run,” said one GOP money world insider. 

And when Bush visited with donors last week, he "made quite an impression. ... There was quite a bit of buzz," said the source.

One Romney aide in particular, Spencer Zwick — who was Romney’s finance chairman in 2012 — grew alarmed. “Spencer is close to the donors, and he was picking up how much excitement there was based on Jeb’s visit,” the finance insider said. “I think that accelerated the calendar."

Zwick, according to multiple sources in a position to know, has been a key influence on Romney, persuading him to lean into a possible candidacy. Zwick did not respond to an email seeking comment. 

“I do know Spencer has been a very aggressive driver. He’s been pushing Mitt to run for a while,” the money world insider said. “It’s not surprising the news came out via a meeting with donors. It’s not to say Mitt doesn’t want to do it. But Spencer has been pushing him."

Romney seems fully engaged at this point, however, driven by dissatisfaction with the large field of potential Republican candidates, as well as by his own personal sense of ennui. 

“I last saw Mitt in December, and he was bored,” the insider said. “He was watching the world blow up around him and feeling somewhat vindicated on a number of ideas he had put out there and positions he had taken and kind of wondering, ‘Is this the next 20 years of my life, just sitting here?' He’s a purpose-driven guy."

But Romney faces a test: Can he convince even some of his most loyal former aides that if he were to run in 2016, he would be a different candidate than he was in 2008 and 2012? 

“How is he able to sell himself as someone who understands the challenges of everyday people? He wasn’t able to do that [in 2012],” said the former Romney operative who is now being recruited by Bush. “That’s what people want, not somebody who can talk about creative destruction or whatever."

Romney’s sudden entry into the presidential sweepstakes "is a huge conundrum for me because I like Jeb. I think he’s a pretty exciting candidate,” the operative said. "But I love Mitt Romney. I have a tremendous amount of loyalty to him." 

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a Romney ally, said in an interview that if Romney ran again, "he’d win, because he’s kind of gotten over the stiffness."

"You have to just let yourself go, and he had a rough time doing that,” Hatch said. "Mitt is a terrific human being. He’s a very organized human being, almost to the point of fault.” 

But Hatch was more circumspect when asked if Romney should run. 

“That’s another question,” he said.