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Behind scenes, Mitt Romney aims GOP toward 2016

His fund-raising prowess noted in Utah gathering

Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, shown greeting supporters last month at a rally for a Senate candidate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was a major force this weekend at a GOP retreat in Utah that he organized.

Charlie Neibergall/Associated press

Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, shown greeting supporters last month at a rally for a Senate candidate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was a major force this weekend at a GOP retreat in Utah that he organized.

PARK CITY, Utah — The official topic of the conference, emblazoned on materials handed out to guests gathered here at a luxury Norwegian-inspired resort, was “The Future of American Leadership.”

But the unofficial theme was made clear not long into breakfast on Friday, when a guest asked Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky the question on everyone’s mind: Is Hillary beatable?

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Leading lights of an anxious Republican establishment have journeyed to Utah’s Deer Valley this weekend for the third annual retreat organized by Mitt Romney, who has sought to transform the rump of his presidential campaign into a kingmaking force for his largely leaderless and divided party.

Part right-leaning “ideas festival” and part Romney political family reunion, the event featured early-morning yoga sessions, late-night cocktails, and a lecture on teamwork and fortitude by Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

With military tensions escalating abroad — and just days after the unseating of Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader — a mix of old Republican blood (former Secretary of State George P. Shultz) and new (Mia Love, a Utah congressional candidate) gathered to diagnose the party’s difficulties.

“This is the place where, I believe, the future of the party is really going to come out of,” said Anthony Scaramucci, a New York hedge fund manager and former Romney fund-raising bundler. “This is the Republican Party’s Bell Labs. This is our R&D division.”

The weekend drew dozens of such men and women, most of them veterans of Romney’s formidable presidential finance team, which raised more money than any other in Republican history.

Also attending were many of the party’s potential nominees for 2016, appearing to relish the opportunity to mingle with leading fund-raisers.

There was Paul, who met privately with 20 or so donors Friday night, preaching the importance of broadening the party’s tent. (“Interesting because he’s different,” as one guest put it, although Paul’s foreign policy views leave the party’s more hawkish donors uneasy.)

There was Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney’s erstwhile running mate — some say his heir — leading a skeet-shooting outing.

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, his political future now resting partly in the hands of a federal prosecutor, huddled with a handful of top Romney bundlers late Friday evening, and spoke Saturday morning about the need for Republicans to focus on their agreements, not their differences.

Asked about his home-state scandal involving the George Washington Bridge, Christie replied: “It’s over and it’s done with, and I’m moving on.”

Spencer J. Zwick, who ran Romney’s fund-raising efforts in 2012, said, “I think there is a thing called a Romney Republican.” Zwick, whose private equity firm sponsored the conference (all his firm’s investors were invited to attend), added: “We are almost two years after the election. How many other people could bring all these people together?”

That was in many ways the point: With a year and half to go before the Republican primaries begin, the party has no unifying candidate or leader. Battles between mainstream Republicans and more conservative activists, which seemed to be on the wane, erupted anew last week with the defeat of Cantor, who is popular with big donors and who had tried to straddle the fault line between the Tea Party and business wings.

The remnants of Romney’s campaign apparatus are a trove of money and power for any contender capable of seizing them. During the 2012 race, a super PAC run by former Romney aides, the Republican National Committee, and the Romney campaign itself spent a combined $1 billion, much of it raised from Wall Street, the real estate world, and oil and gas companies.

“The continuing events happening in Republican politics right now have started to make people who care about 2016 a little more focused,” said Jack Oliver, a former aide to President George W. Bush and a Republican fund-raiser.

“This is both a highly enjoyable thing, a time to learn and discuss ideas, but it’s also a chance to be with some of the people who care about what happens next.”

On Friday afternoon, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee delivered a stump speech that was equal parts red meat and rueful political self-improvement. Republicans, he said, need to stand up for working-class voters, while Washington needs more compromise.

“The Rolling Stones were the greatest political philosophers of all time,” Huckabee told the crowd, “and they got it right: ‘You can’t always get what you want.’ ”

A case in point: Former governor Jeb Bush of Florida, who is increasingly the preferred candidate of Romney veterans, could not attend because the Utah event conflicted with a gala in Miami for his education foundation. So talk of another 2016 contender wafted through the knotty-pine interiors of the Stein Eriksen resort: Romney himself.

“Somebody here needs to start a ‘Draft Mitt’ movement,” Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC host, told guests Thursday, according to someone who was there. Another said Scarborough had compared Romney with Winston Churchill, who lost his seat in Parliament before returning to power at the outbreak of World War II, when his warnings about Nazi appeasement proved prescient.

If Bush and Christie do not run, Scarborough added, “this is the only person who can fill the stage.”

The next day, Romney — cheerful and tieless — talked down the idea of a third presidential bid.

“I think people make a lot of compliments to make us all feel good, and it’s very nice and heartening to have people say such generous things. But I am not running, and they know it,” Romney told reporters. He added that politics was a little like dating: “The unavailable is always the most attractive, right?”

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