PARK CITY, Utah — If the stakes were not so high, the rivalries not so cutthroat, the high-level Republican gathering hosted by Mitt Romney this week in the mountains of Utah would almost resemble a jolly summer camp. Almost.
Here is Marco Rubio, clad in athletic shorts and Nikes offering to play flag football with any takers. (He played offense the whole time, to show off his arm and avoid humiliating any millionaire campaign contributors with tough defense.)
Who wants to go skeet shooting with Lindsey Graham? How about sunrise Pilates — or afternoon horseback riding — with Ann Romney?
Romney himself plays the role of head counselor, letting out a loud whistle and telling his guests, “Let’s get started!”
But beyond the stunning Rocky Mountain setting and the extracurricular activities, the real business of this confab is influence and campaign money. Here is Scott Walker, for instance, spending a full day in private meetings with potential donors.
Romney’s fourth annual Deer Valley gathering marks a renewed effort to cement the 2012 Republican presidential nominee’s status as a GOP elder statesman.
At a time when the 2016 Republican presidential field is fractured among nearly two dozen announced or potential candidates, a parade of hopefuls arrived this week seeking Romney’s political blessing, his connections, and of course, access to his network of wealthy campaign contributors.
Some 250 GOP movers and shakers converged on the Stein Eriksen Lodge, a five-star hotel at the foot of Deer Valley Ski Resort where rooms include hot tubs, fireplaces, and beautiful views.
For all the spectacular natural surroundings, however, money to fuel the presidential campaigns was a central topic of the conversation. More specifically, uncommitted money.
“Donors are still in that phase of getting to know the candidates,” said Spencer Zwick, who was Romney’s national finance director. “People want to be inspired, and they want to see a path to victory. … It’s almost like we are trying to find our Barack Obama.”
Romney told reporters Friday that he was unlikely to make an endorsement in the primary unless he felt it could make a difference late in the race for the nomination.
“You know, it’s wonderful watching a campaign when you’re seeing it from the outside,” Romney said. “I don’t look back and second guess. I don’t say, ‘Oh I wish I made a different decision.’ I’m glad I made the decision I did. And I’m looking forward to playing what limited role a guy who lost can play in a presidential contest.”
Nonetheless, Rubio, the freshman senator from Florida, appeared to enjoy a special role at this gathering. On Friday morning, as attendees sat in a conference room eating scrambled eggs, fruit, and French toast, Rubio sat at a table with Mitt and Ann Romney.
As Rubio spoke later, the crowd had moved into a room with arched wooden ceilings, fireplaces on either side, and paintings of ski mountains. Romney and his sons sat on the front row, sipping water and nodding along as Rubio tried to charm the crowd with a mixture of foreign policy proposals, references to his youth, and a joke about Democrats sending a drone to record his flag football outing.
“If I’m short of breath,” he said, “just know I live at sea level.”
As the field’s youngest candidate, who is making an argument that it’s time for a new generation to lead, the 44-year-old Rubio also made an impression on those who played seven-on-seven flag football with him.
“There’s a little bit of a fierceness to him,” said Bill Hansen, who was in charge of Romney’s education policy group and is uncommitted in 2016. “It was a nice chance for people to get to know him and see the real him. In gym shorts.”
In a nominating contest marked by a series of cattle calls — gatherings of candidates in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — the one Romney convened here was the most exclusive. General Electric Co. chief executive Jeffrey Immelt roamed the hallways. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates ate lunch on the terrace. Former NBA commissioner David Stern was buttonholed by several Boston-based fans wondering what he would have done with a scandal over deflated basketballs.
Romney also invited several candidates for the Democratic nomination, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. All of them declined.
As six presidential hopefuls unspooled their pitches — in ballrooms, in private conference rooms, and on cushy couches next to fireplaces — many attendees were taken with the field.
Graham was the plainspoken, folksy South Carolinian who made light of his bachelorhood (“We tried tall, good looking, smart, nice, great family man. Vote for me, we’re not going down that path again.”) Ohio Governor John Kasich was the one who wandered around the stage, imploring his party to do a better job connecting with the middle class.
Walker touted his experience taking on unions in Wisconsin, while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie used his signature blunt style to talk about reform, explain why governors are more qualified than senators, and declare himself “probably the most psychoanalyzed national political figure in the world.”
Carly Fiorina, who is slated to speak on Saturday morning, said in an interview “Everything about me is different.”
One Republican, however, was conspicuously absent. Jeb Bush was halfway across the world, choosing to take an international trip instead of coming to Utah. Sources close to both Bush and Romney said that Bush tried to figure out a way to attend this conference — and finally sent his son Jeb Jr. instead.
But the former Florida governor’s absence was another sign of a relationship with Romney that no one describes as warm, and some say is downright tense. Some who have spoken with Romney privately say that he has been unimpressed with Bush, and they remember how Bush was one of the last politicians to endorse him in 2012.
There also are bitter feelings over how Bush started aggressively courting Romney’s donors and campaign aides this year.
Tagg Romney, Mitt’s oldest son, said several Republican candidates who should be asking for his father’s advice are not. “I just don’t think Jeb’s thinking about us a lot. … We lost. He doesn’t want to do the same things we did.”
There is still some wistful longing, as well as some second-guessing of Romney’s public flirtation in January of a 2016 run, which he ended after three weeks of frenzied speculation.
If he had waited, some advisers say, the party might now be turning to him, with such a chaotic field and the establishment favorite, Jeb Bush, unable to establish a clear lead.
“If Mitt had held his fire until now, the hydraulic pressure for him would be enormous,” said a former top Romney aide.
But those closest to Romney say they are now resigned to playing a role in a Republican world without him as a candidate (Some are quietly hoping he could become secretary of state in a GOP administration.)
Ron Kaufman, one of Romney’s closest allies, is helping Bush. The former director of Romney’s advance team, Will Ritter, and his former New Hampshire adviser Jim Merrill are working for Rubio.
Romney’s most identifiable trio of top advisers — Beth Myers, Eric Fehrnstrom, and Peter Flaherty — have been speaking with various campaigns, but have made no commitments.
Romney himself seems at peace with his decision not to give the White House a third try. Those close to him insist he has no regrets.
“I’m waiting for Mitt Romney to run for president,” Zwick said. “It’s not going to happen. But I’m going to push for Mitt Romney to run for president until after he dies, and probably until the day I die.”
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.