CORONADO, Calif. — Mitt Romney’s potential presidential candidacy was being met with curiosity and wariness — but far from a full-fledged embrace — by Republican power brokers and activists gathering Thursday in California for the party’s winter meetings.
The candidacy injects the possibility of a hotly competitive primary that could either energize the party, or distract voters from the ultimate goal of winning in November 2016. While Romney and former Florida governor Jeb Bush have attracted most of the early attention, nearly two dozen candidates are now considering a run.
“This really kind of throws a wrench in everything,” said Saul Anuzis, a longtime Michigan Republican leader who backed Romney in 2012. “Mitt Romney is truly respected and loved here. No doubt the committee has a great deal of positive feelings for him. But I also think everybody’s kind of surprised.’’
In conversations with more than a dozen Republicans gathered near San Diego for the Republican National Committee’s winter meetings, most said Romney’s potential candidacy demonstrates the party’s vibrancy, even while they cautioned that he would need to mount a much better effort than he did in 2012.
Some of Romney’s potential rivals and the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page dismissed Romney this week as “yesterday’s news’’ and “recycled,” saying the same thing that Romney himself has said for the last two years: He had his shot, and now it’s someone else’s turn.
“I’m not happy frankly with the way he’s chosen to reenter presidential politics and I think his friends need to be honest with him about that,” Vin Weber, a former cochairman of Romney’s campaign, told Bloomberg Politics. “He’s a great man, he’d be a great president but there’s not a lot of precedent for somebody losing the election and coming back four years later, becoming the nominee.”
As Romney continues to weigh whether to run again, one of his biggest tests is whether he can convince the broader party faithful that he deserves another shot at the White House.
While his most ardent supporters and most loyal donors are nudging him into the race, it is an open question how deep the support will be in his party.
There is almost universal agreement that no one is going to step aside for him and that Romney has a more difficult path to the nomination than he did in 2012, particularly with Bush strongly contemplating a campaign and already competing with Romney for donors.
There also appeared to be a consensus that Romney, who trumpeted his business management skills on the stump, oversaw a poorly run general election campaign that allowed President Obama to return to the White House.
RNC members said he will be under pressure to explain what lessons he learned and how he will improve if he runs again.
“Mitt comes in as a strong contender. Most of the members of the committee feel the campaign was not as well run as it should have been,” said Steve Duprey, a RNC committeeman from New Hampshire. “So if he runs again, they want to see how it’s going to be done differently.”
Even some of Romney’s supporters who again may work on his campaign say privately that they already see some warning signs in his early rollout over the past week.
His advisers have been outlining a pathway for him to again win the nomination, but Romney himself has not fully articulated his rationale for jumping into the race after two years of saying he wouldn’t.
They worry that, without a clearly articulated reason for running, he will come across as merely an ambitious man who wants to be president without knowing why.
Romney is planning to give a speech on Friday to the conference, his first public remarks since he disclosed that he was considering getting into the race.
Romney will deliver the address from the USS Midway aircraft carrier.
Romney is also starting to hire staff for a potential campaign, bringing on Colin Reed to help with press inquiries. Reed ran Scott Brown’s Senate campaign in New Hampshire.
The committee meeting is being held at a sprawling resort with expansive views of the ocean.
Several other potential presidential candidates are addressing the conference — including former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, outgoing Texas Governor Rick Perry, and Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin — but Bush and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey are not planning to attend.
In quiet meetings over coffee, in strolls along the beach, and in conference halls, Romney was the topic du jour.
“Governor Romney is one of the finest public servants this country has ever known,” said Robert Asher, an RNC committeeman from Pennsylvania. “There’s an old saying: In politics, 24 hours is a lifetime. People are allowed to change their mind.”
Reince Priebus, the RNC’s chairman, strolled around the resort Thursday with an entourage and a broad smile.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” he said in an interview. “It makes our party the exciting, interesting party that has intrigue, a little drama. But a lot of fun.
“The Democrats, what do they have?” he added. “It’s the most boring, day old bread, same old, same old.”
Still, there are some concerns that a Romney candidacy — or one by Bush — will have the feel of same old, same old, as well.
“Some of the newer candidates say, ‘We need to look forward not back,’ ” Duprey said. “We need to do to Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton what President Obama did to John McCain, play the generational change.”
Christopher Jacobson, a 62-year-old Republican from Orange County, Calif., said that if Romney runs again, he would support him.
“My car still has a Mitt sticker on it,” he said. “I didn’t take it off, in case he ran again.”