Four years ago this month, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney stood on Doug and Stella Scamman’s New Hampshire farm and announced his 2012 presidential bid as the field’s once and future front-runner.
Now, the Scammans are like much of the rest of the Republican Party: auditioning, test-driving, and listening to a historically vast and unpredictable GOP field. Last week, several miles away from their farm, they sat in a third-floor conference room in a Portsmouth office park, listening to one in a seemingly endless parade of suitors hoping to succeed where Romney failed.
The outcome of the Republican primary is as unknowable as it has been in decades, with no clear successor to Romney as the party’s standard-bearer. And, for Romney, the quickening race for the nomination marks the start of a new season, one during which he will inhabit a unique role in modern politics.
Some unsuccessful nominees, like Senator John McCain or then-Senator John Kerry, have dived back into their elected posts. Others, like former vice president Al Gore, have retreated from political life, only to pop their heads back into the conversation at choice moments.
Romney, still popular in the party’s moderate circles, stands alone as a Republican wise man figure who could wield tremendous influence over the course of the 2016 election.
“I think it’s fair to say he won’t be sitting on the sidelines,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, one of Romney’s longest-serving advisers.
Indeed, Romney is visibly aching to remain not just a player, but also a party macher. After flirting with a run for a few weeks earlier this year, Romney has since settled back into kingmaking mode.
This weekend, he is hosting his annual private retreat in Park City, Utah. Six candidates are planning to attend the ring-kissing and networking session, Romney advisers said.
“It’s a good chance for 2016 candidates,” Romney’s oldest son, Tagg, said on the eve of the summit as large conference rooms were being readied at a lodge in Deer Valley. “We brought in a lot of our donors; they can meet people, get to know them, and sell them on why they think they’re the best candidate.”
Unlike McCain, who is backing the long-shot candidacy of his friend Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, or former president George W. Bush, a supporter of his brother former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Romney has no clear leaning.
As chunks of his network have splintered among various Republican candidates, Romney’s closest advisers at the Shawmut Group — Fehrnstrom, former Romney campaign manager Beth Myers, and longtime adviser Peter Flaherty — remain, for now, unaffiliated with any campaign.
Longtime Romney associates said they expect the former governor to maintain an above-the-fray reserve — at least for a while.
“All previous nominees — like Romney and McCain — have significant roles to play because they’ve been through the process and can speak from experience,” said former New Hampshire governor John H. Sununu, who is himself thus far neutral.
Sununu added, “I don’t think many of the senior Republicans are going to jump into this primary until it really winnows down and perhaps not even then.”
This doesn’t mean that Romney won’t be courted assiduously. His nod would be one of the prizes of the primary. A Romney surrogacy will bring with it base-pleasing critiques of President Obama’s second-term that the Republican is singularly situated to offer, particularly on foreign policy, which has emerged as arguably the field’s most shared focus.
“I don’t think we know yet, whether or not President Obama is going to be a big plus,” said Stuart Stevens, senior strategist to Romney in 2012, referring to the general election.
“Whether or not the Democratic nominee is going to spend a lot of time campaigning with President Obama, I don’t think anybody knows,” Stevens continued. “But I think [every Republican] would like to campaign with Mitt Romney, though every nominee has to stand on their own.”
One Romney adviser painted a scenario in which the unpredictable Republican contest ultimately boiled down to two candidates: one ideologically aligned with Romney, and the other who did not harbor similar principles. In that case, the adviser said, Romney, whether at a tight convention or through his vast network of political contacts among delegates and powerbrokers, could step in and throw his weight behind the former.
But, the adviser said, citing the unknowable nature of the nascent campaign, it is about equally likely that Romney hangs back through the primary until a nominee emerges, then he helps augment the GOP attack against Obama’s record and the Democratic nominee.
Romney advisers, who convene with him semi-regularly via conference call, often before one of his high-profile media appearances, describe delicately chosen spots where Romney can forcefully make his case without rehashing some of the less savory memories of the 2012 campaign. And Republicans agree that, in all likelihood, Romney will enjoy a prime speaking slot at the Republican convention.
Romney in April took shots at former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton over her use of a private e-mail account while she was at the State Department. And he chided Obama, saving special barbs for foreign policy disagreements.
But, aside from his charity boxing match with former heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield, Romney has pulled most of his punches, ceding much of the political bandwidth to those looking to succeed, and surpass, him.
Lingering dissatisfaction with him among the party’s conservative activists make any Romney injection into the primary something less than an unalloyed bonus, even loyalists concede.
“If he tried to drive it away from the right side, then the people on the right might just say, ‘The heck with it, I’m not going to vote in the next election either,’ ” Doug Scamman said. “That’s how we got Obama back.”
But the prospect of helping gild the next Republican president, if it cannot be himself, could prove one competition too tempting for Romney to forgo.