WASHINGTON — If Mitt Romney decides to mount a third presidential campaign, his pathway to the 2016 Republican nomination could be far more difficult than in 2012, when he faced a weaker field of candidates who at times seemed to be auditioning for a reality television show.
Over the weekend, Romney and his advisers began calling former supporters, trying to test the waters and gauge what might lie ahead.
Far from a coronation, Romney would probably face former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who would both literally and figuratively give the 2012 GOP nominee a run for his money. Bush brings a kind of gravitas, resume, and donor network — largely built by his father and brother, both presidents — that Romney rarely faced in 2012.
Combined with a likely challenge from Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Romney candidacy could ignite a fierce battle among establishment Republicans in a campaign aggressively fought in the town halls and VFW halls of snowy New Hampshire.
His candidacy could also upend some Republicans’ hopes of uniting the establishment early to prevent Tea Party elements from gaining traction.
“I can’t remember a time when that particular segment of the party had that kind of division. Usually you have a sense of who it’s going to be,” said Tom Rath, a longtime Republican operative who has helped run Romney’s campaign in New Hampshire and would probably do the same in 2016.
“I think Mitt knows that,” he added. “It’s a different world than the one he looked at going into ’12. My sense is that he’s very well aware of that. A real motivator is, I think, the idea that he wants to be president. He really thinks he can make a difference.”
Romney on Friday told a group of about 30 donors in Manhattan that he was considering another presidential campaign, an announcement that reverberated around Republican donors and activists.
Some former aides have reacted to the news with glee, while others have trepidation, not eager for the GOP to relive the unsuccessful campaign they thought they left behind more than two years ago on a cold, rainy night in Boston.
And some Republicans, particularly in New Hampshire, are dreading the prospect of having to pick between Romney and Bush.
“Mitt getting in the race and all the great Republicans getting in the race just makes life tough for me because I’m going to have to pick amongst friends,” said John Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor who was President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff. Sununu has also been a top Romney surrogate.
Several Republican operatives predicted that if Romney is in the race, the Iowa caucuses would essentially become a competition among conservatives, with potential candidates such as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky all fighting for traction. The New Hampshire primary would become focused on trying to nominate a center-right candidate, with Romney, Bush, and Christie leading that field.
But Romney might have to work a lot harder than he did four years ago, when he had a dominant lead in New Hampshire that he never really relinquished. By this time four years ago, he had staffers lined up, endorsements ready, and a whole strategy in place, none of which exists now.
In the 2012 primary contest, he won over business and establishment Republicans, with the only question being whether he could withstand the strength of the Tea Party and conservative activists.
Even then, he struggled, as primary voters seemed to lunge from one challenger to the next in search of a Romney alternative. Former senator Rick Santorum surged, followed by Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and then Santorum again. Even former pizza executive Herman Cain caught fire, if only briefly.
Romney eventually won in 2012, largely with the support of the kind of establishment Republicans that Bush and Christie would be fighting him for in 2016.
“There wasn’t competition for Mitt Romney, period in 2012. He was the only person qualified in that field,” said former senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican. “Everybody else was trying to write a book or get a TV show. That was a very, very weak and unfortunate field. . . . That’s not going to be the case this time, clearly. It’s going to be a very substantive group of people.”
It could benefit such potential candidates as Paul, who has been trying to bridge the divide within a fractious party and, with the establishment splintered, could gain traction.
It also could spell problems for a group of relatively unknown governors who were thinking about getting in, including John Kasich of Ohio, Mike Pence of Indiana, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. With someone like Romney in the race, they would have a much harder time raising the money needed to mount a vigorous run and could struggle in the flurry to sign up campaign operatives.
A Romney candidacy would also complicate matters for Bush, who so far has not seemed inclined to compete in Iowa, where conservative activists carry great sway. Bush has also made few inroads into New Hampshire.
Although the Bush family name is still cherished among New Hampshire Republicans, Jeb Bush himself lacks the connections that Romney has spent eight years cultivating.
Bush has not even been in New Hampshire in a political capacity since January 2000, when he was campaigning in Manchester for his brother. While other candidates sought any opportunity to head to the Granite State under the guise of endorsing a candidate, Bush avoided it. When he headlined a July fund-raiser for Scott Brown’s US Senate campaign in New Hampshire, it was held in Boston.
“He doesn’t have any personal relationships with anybody here,” said Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “I’m intrigued by the Bush candidacy. I could see him doing every well, or I could see it not going anywhere. I could see both scenarios.”
Losing both Iowa and New Hampshire can spell doom for presidential candidates. Bill Clinton is the only modern candidate who has won a party’s nomination without winning either New Hampshire or Iowa.
A Bush spokeswoman would not discuss staffing, efforts to reach out to activists, or whether there were any trips planned to New Hampshire.
“New Hampshire citizens play an important, traditional role in our electoral process and Governor Bush looks forward to the opportunity to engage with them and discuss his optimistic, conservative vision for the future of our nation,” said Kristy Campbell, a spokeswoman for Bush, who previously worked for Romney.
Christie has made numerous trips to New Hampshire.
Few candidates have tried to win their party’s nomination a second time. The last candidate to accomplish the feat was Richard Nixon, who was selected by his party in 1968, eight years after he lost to President John F. Kennedy. But he was challenged by a number of other Republicans.
One Republican unwilling to step aside for the party’s former nominee?
Mitt Romney’s father, George.
As he opened his campaign headquarters in Concord, N.H., Romney contrasted himself with Nixon, declaring, “I’m a lot more current.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.