WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney told a group of supporters Friday that he is considering a third presidential campaign, according to two people who were present, a decision that could dramatically shake up the emerging field in the 2016 Republican nominating contest.
During a meeting in the New York offices of Woody Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets, Romney told a group of about 30 high-level financial executives and former campaign contributors that he was troubled by the current state of foreign affairs and long-term issues with the economy, according to the two attendees.
Romney told the group that his decision had nothing to do with his views of other candidates planning to run, although other sources close to Romney have said that he is not satisfied with the emerging Republican primary field, even with the addition of former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
Some at the meeting encouraged Romney to mount a run immediately, although Romney said that he had no timetable to make a decision.
Some of his former top aides say they believe he has several months to decide, given that he already has a strong network of supporters and high name recognition from his previous two campaigns. But delaying that long could essentially freeze the race as donors, activists, consultants, and supporters try to determine whether Romney is in or out.
“If he didn’t want to be president, he wouldn’t have run two times,” said Spencer Zwick, who is Romney’s finance director and who attended the Friday meeting in Manhattan. “This is a guy who has it in his heart and soul that he could save the country. I don’t believe he will be able to sit on the sidelines — knowing how qualified he is — and just concede the presidency to Hillary Clinton or someone else.”
The meeting came just three days after Bush announced formation of two political action committees, and the timing appears more than coincidental. The move probably will prevent some of Romney’s former donors from joining up with Bush.
Romney’s discussion with his top donors comes after several weeks in which Zwick — a longtime adviser who is so close to Romney that some call him the “sixth son” — has had daily conversations with donors, letting them know that Romney was considering a bid.
After some of those discussions, Johnson and others helped put together a meeting with Romney, who went to New York after attending the inauguration for Governor Charlie Baker. At the inauguration, he sat near New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and was in such a jolly mood that he flashed bunny ears over former senator Scott Brown as someone took a photo.
Among contributors who met with Romney in New York were Emil Henry Jr., a former Bush administration assistant treasury secretary; Alexander Navab, from the financial firm KKR; Patrick Durkin, a managing director at Barclays; Clifford Sobel, managing partner of Valor Capital Group; and Edward C. Forst, the chief executive of Cushman & Wakefield.
As Bush and Christie — along with several other establishment Republicans — begin to build their lists of campaign contributors, they have been in pursuit of Romney’s former financial network, which Zwick built to great success in both 2008 and 2012.
For all the faults of Romney’s campaign — polling that was off the mark, computer systems that failed Election Day, inferior field operations, and overpaying for TV ads — the financing team was one of the bright spots.
In conversations with a number of former top Romney contributors, several said they were holding out hope he would mount a third presidential campaign. But others are growing weary of the mixed signals they have received from Romney and his top advisers.
“He needs to make a decision sooner rather than later,” said Bobbie Kilberg, a technology executive and top Republican donor who has hosted fund-raisers for Romney at her home in McLean, Va. “I don’t think Mitt has the luxury of waiting until the late spring or summer or fall to let his intentions be known.”
Romney stated multiple times during 2014 that he had no intention of running for president again. “The unavailable is always the most attractive, right?” Romney joked with reporters in June. “That goes in dating as well.”
Ann Romney, who has pushed her husband to run in the past, was more emphatic.
“Done,” she told the Los Angeles Times in October. “Completely. Not only Mitt and I are done, but the kids are done. Done. Done. Done.”
But in between skiing adventures, hikes, and road trips with his large brood of grandchildren, Romney continued nurturing his former campaign operation. He still often meets with donors or dines with former aides.
And during the 2014 midterm congressional elections, Romney was one of the most sought-after surrogates. He appeared in television ads, helped raise money, and stumped for candidates across the country. Those efforts were part of what began to change his thinking, Zwick said.
“His growing concern for the country hasn’t gotten smaller, it’s gotten deeper,” Zwick said. “When he traveled in 2014, he talked to voters, he saw what was important to people. I believe there’s an opening for him.”
Polls have shown Romney with a lead, both nationally and in the first-in-the-nation-primary state of New Hampshire, even with Bush in the race.
In the meeting with donors, Romney said his wife was now “very encouraging” of another campaign, according to one source in the room.
But even some of his past supporters are skeptical of his ability to run for president again.
“Romney is history to me. Been there done that,” said John Moran, retired chairman of a large New York-based private investment company and major Republican fund-raiser who raised money for Romney in 2012. “I think the party will look for a new face.”
“I won’t say that Jeb Bush has got it in the bag,” he added. “But almost.”
Bush has been aggressively building his finance team, tapping networks that his father and brother built during their presidential campaigns, as well as his own Florida-based donors. He was in Boston on Friday afternoon, meeting with Boston business heavyweights at a luncheon hosted by Putnam Investments chief executive Robert Reynolds, who donated $200,000 to the efforts to elect Romney.
Bloomberg reported that Bush is trying to raise $100 million by April — a staggering figure. Romney raised about $6.5 million during a similar period in 2011.
Charlie Spies, who formed the super PAC that raised nearly $154 million in support of Romney, last week was listed as treasurer for the newly-formed super PAC supporting Bush.
Romney captured the GOP nomination in 2012, but did not in 2008. The last candidate to win his party’s nomination a second time was Richard M. Nixon, who after losing the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy was nominated again in 1968 and won the White House. Romney supporters have also previously pointed to another historical example: Ronald Reagan ran three times (though he was not the party’s nominee until his third try).
Supporters have also noted that Romney would be 69 years old in 2016 — the same age as Reagan when he was sworn into his first term.
Mel Sembler, a Florida real estate developer who is among the top Republican fund-raisers, has been raising money for Romney since 2007. But this time, he’s signed up with Bush. He’s now helping put together fund-raisers for Bush in Florida, and connecting with many former Romney donors.
“I have great affection for Mitt and Ann. I spent a lot of time and money and effort trying to get him elected,” Sembler said. “But I’m not sitting around waiting. And I think that’s the way a lot of people are.”