By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mitt Romney, the Republican U.S. presidential nominee in 2012, told a meeting of donors on Friday that he is considering another White House run in 2016, a source familiar with the comments said.
The former Massachusetts governor, who has sent mixed signals about the likelihood of another campaign, told a small group of donors in New York that he was thinking about running and to "tell your friends" he was considering it, the source said.
The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the comments, said Romney did not give a timetable for making a decision about whether to launch what would be his third presidential campaign. Romney failed to win the nomination in 2008 and lost the general election to President Barack Obama in 2012.
Romney's statement comes as some of the party's top donors begin to line up behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who said in December he would actively explore a presidential run. If Romney entered the race, he would be competing with Bush for many of the party's most established major donors.
Romney has equivocated about another presidential campaign, going from absolutely ruling it out after his 2012 loss to sounding more uncertain recently. The comments in New York appear to be his most open admission that he is seriously considering it.
"He's more open to it, based on all the encouragement he's received," a senior Romney adviser said of a possible run.
The Journal said one of the attendees at the meeting asked Romney if he wanted to be president, and he said "yes, of course."
The topic of whether Romney would run for the White House came up at a dinner he had with former advisers on Wednesday night in Menlo Park, California. "The sense I got from him was that he was leaving his options open," said a former adviser who attended the dinner. The former adviser emphasized that the dinner was a social occasion, not a strategy session, however.
As to whether Romney feels the likelihood of Bush running makes it harder for him to enter the fray, the former adviser said Romney believes the Republican field is in the "formational stages" and he would not be deterred from jumping in.
Romney's entrance in the race would dramatically reshape what promises to be a crowded and competitive field. Polls show him at or near the top of the Republican race along with Bush.
Bush and his allies on Tuesday formed a pair of political committees that allow him to speak with donors and raise money, formalizing his political activity and putting pressure on Romney, with whom he would compete for donors.
A handful of former Romney donors and operatives have committed to help Bush's likely bid.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee left his Fox News show over the weekend to ponder a bid, and more than a dozen other possible serious contenders could still run.
Romney would likely compete for financial support with Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is also considered a member of the party's "establishment" wing. A Romney bid could similarly complicate the aspirations of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who was vetted by Romney's campaign in 2012 as a vice presidential possibility.
A Romney candidacy would make it very difficult for Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, who was the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012, to run for the White House.
Others considering a White House bid include senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, as well as governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Rick Perry of Texas, John Kasich of Ohio, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Mike Pence of Indiana.
Great skepticism remains among key Republican Party figures that Romney, 67, will actually run, however. "I just think a lot of the money has already drifted away to other candidates," a former Romney adviser said.
(Additional reporting by Gabriel Debenedetti and Caren Bohan; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Will Dunham, Christian Plumb and Richard Chang)