- The Washington Times - Friday, January 9, 2015

Mitt Romney’s signal last week that he’s seriously considering a third run at the White House has roiled the field — and could end up providing chances for more conservative candidates to emerge, GOP analysts said.

Mr. Romney met with donors Friday, and it appears he intended for word to become public, which was seen as a signal that he’s serious, and that he’s ready to compete for the big donors and the key fundraisers who power the establishment wing of the Republican Party, which was already trying to decide between former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

“It dilutes the impact of the moderate vote which is already relatively diminished in the early caucus and primary states,” said Charlie Gerow, a member of the American Conservative Union’s board of directors. “I don’t think there is any question about that.”

Mr. Romney won the 2012 GOP nomination against a weak field, and running as the only establishment candidate. This time around, analysts say there will be multiple contenders for that banner, and there should be stronger conservative alternatives including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Sen. Rick Santorum also is considering a second run, as are outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

“In 2012, Romney didn’t have to compete, he just had to out last his under financed opponent,” said Taylor Budowich, executive director of the Tea Party Express. “That may not be the case for 2016. We may end up seeing a heavyweight death match between big name establishment candidates that would open up a path for a well-organized outsider candidate.”

Up until last week, Mr. Romney had shot down the idea that he would run again since losing to President Obama in the 2012 general election — even telling the New York Times flat out a year ago “I’m not running again.”

But Mr. Romney’s close allies now say that he is more open to running based on all the encouragement that he’s received from supporters.

And Spencer Zwick, the finance director for Mr. Romney’s 2012 bid, says that Mr. Romney doesn’t have to jump into the race now, but can afford to wait awhile longer, thanks to his name identification.

“Mitt Romney is a household name,” Mr. Zwick said. “He is not bound by the same timeline …. He has the luxury of waiting.”

Some donors, though, warned that Mr. Romney needed to signal his interest sooner rather then later in order to attract donors and the fundraisers who bring in the cash.

He did just that on Friday when he told a group of 30 donors at a meeting in the Manhattan offices of New York Jets owner Woody Johnson that he is giving a run serious thought.

Bobbie Kilberg, a veteran fundraiser who kept tabs on the meeting via people in the room, said it seemed to be sending a signal.

“In my prior conversation with Mitt, what he had always said was, ‘I am preserving my options,’” Ms. Kilberg told The Washington Times. “What he is now saying, according to the people in the room, is that ‘I am seriously considering and weighing a run.’ That is a difference of degrees, and it is also different to say something publicly as opposed to privately.”

She added, “I am making the assumption that if you say something in a room with 30 people that it is public.”

The news, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, comes less than a month after Mr. Bush announced he was actively exploring a bid and days after he launched a political action committee, Right to Rise.

Political observers said the move put pressure on Mr. Romney, and Mr. Christie, all of whom would likely compete for the same pool of donors.

Indeed, the latest Real Clear Politics Average of national polls shows that Mr. Bush and Mr. Christie are leading the pack of possible presidential contenders. But Mr. Romney leads surveys when he is included.

Saul Anuzis, said that it is hard to imagine there is room for Mr. Romney, and Mr. Bush as well as the likes of Mr. Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio to run.

“Historically, the more conservative candidates split their base, this would be a unique phenomenon,” Mr. Anuzis said. “Conservative candidates are smiling at the prospect of a Romney, Bush, Rubio and Christie all running.”

The irony, GOP insiders say, is that some of the same conservatives who were on the hunt for the “anyone but Romney” candidate in 2012 could benefit from having him giving it another go in 2016.

“From the standpoint of Paul, Cruz, Walker and others, Romney’s entry could not be better news,” said Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer and presidential historian. “Bush and Romney will presumably split the establishment vote making the real race for the third pole position.”

“Bush and Romney presently occupy the same time-space continuum of moderate establishmentarians,” Mr. Shirley said. “In their parlance, they are playing out of the same golf bag.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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