BOSTON — Mitt Romney's shadow looms over a Republican Party in disarray.
The face of the GOP for much of the last year, the failed presidential candidate has been a virtual ghost since his defeat Nov. 6. He has quietly weathered the fallout of the campaign from the seclusion of his Southern California home, emerging only momentarily for a private lunch at the White House with President Obama on Thursday.
His loss and immediate withdrawal from politics has created a leadership vacuum within his party. It's left the GOP rudderless, lacking an overarching agenda and mired in infighting, with competing visions for the way ahead, during what may be the most important policy debate in a generation.
In his final meeting with campaign staffers at his Boston headquarters, Mr. Romney promised to remain "a strong voice for the party," according to those in attendance. But so far he has offered little to the Capitol Hill negotiations over potential tax increases and entitlement program changes that could affect virtually every American.
He declined to comment on the Treasury Department's recent refusal to declare China a currency manipulator, which was one of his signature issues over the past 18 months. He made no public remarks after his meeting with Mr. Obama, quickly fading away again.
"If I had to tell you somebody who is the leader of the party right now, I couldn't," said Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, which is among the conservative factions vying for increased influence. "There's a void right now."
There's no shortage of Republicans maneuvering to fill it, from House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio to a number of high-profile politicians looking to boost their national profiles, if not position themselves for a 2016 presidential run. That group could include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, son and brother of presidents, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Republican officials acknowledge party tensions between the moderate and conservative wings, as well as the tea party and evangelical constituencies. But they dismiss the leadership vacuum as a standard political reality for the losing party in the presidential race. Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, never had a strong relationship with the conservative base, given his more moderate past.
Party officials are optimistic that a team of younger and more diverse leaders, drawn from the ranks of governors and Congress, will emerge in the coming months to help strengthen and unify what is now a party grappling with its identity. That list includes Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki Haley of South Carolina.
Republican strategist Phil Musser is among those suggesting that the current void presents a breakout opportunity for the party chairman, Reince Priebus. The 40-year-old Midwesterner largely played a supporting administrative role in his first two years on the job.
"To some degree, it's a challenge inasmuch you don't have a standard-bearer to rally behind that unifies central themes of the conservative movement," Mr. Musser said. "The bottom line is that a little bit of messiness and frank family discussion is not a terrible thing after an election like this."