Mitt Romney said Friday he won’t make a third try for the presidency.
Romney made two phone calls, one to longtime supporters and another to donors, from a New York hotel, telling them “it is best to give other leaders in the party the opportunity to become our next nominee.”
The 2012 Republican presidential nominee “said he thought he could win, but to get there requires a path with a lot of issues,” said Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general who was on the calls.
The calls were short. Romney read a statement, then ad libbed, Rath said. “He made it clear. He said there was no looking back, no Plan B, no brokered convention,” he said. “He was done.”
The 2012 Republican nominee, who lost to President Obama, said that he had put “considerable thought” into a third run and was convinced that he could win the nomination.
But, he said he believes that “one of our next generation of Republican leaders, one who may not be as well known as I am today, one who has not yet taken their message across the country, one who is just getting started, may well emerge as being better able to defeat the Democrat nominee.”
Romney’s decision to bow out leaves a slew of potential Republican contenders, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, governors Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, along with Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Romney’s departure would appear to clear the way for Bush to become the establishment favorite, though Christie also is likely to pick up momentum.
In last month’s McClatchy-Marist poll, Romney was slightly ahead of Bush among potential Republican candidates. Christie was tied with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for third.
But with Romney out of the race, Bush was the leader, though only with 16 percent. Huckabee was next at 12 percent. What that says is that party activists are still in the very early stages of looking at the race.
Bush, who met privately with Romney last week in Utah, hailed Romney’s decision on Facebook, calling him a “patriot.
“I join many in hoping his days of serving our nation and our party are not over,” Bush wrote. “I look forward to working with him to ensure all Americans have a chance to rise up.”
According to another supporter on the call, who did not want to be named, Romney cited polls showing him leading for the Republican nomination, and others showing he would easily top Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
But, noted Rath, Romney also knows how volatile and unpredictable polls and elections could be.
Romney, who said in his call that he believed he would’ve been “more than competitive” in raising money, said the reaction of Republican voters across the country was “surprising and heartening” and that polls showed him with a significant lead.
But both he and Bush face big trouble in Iowa where influential conservatives have had enough of them. Iowa conservatives mirror the views of like-minded activists nationwide, and having the party’s vocal right wing blasting away could stagger either candidate throughout 2016.
His departure comes just three weeks after he stunned the political world, meeting Jan. 9 with about 30 supporters at the New York City office of New York Jets owner Woody Johnson and signaling he was thinking of entering the race, after months of vociferously saying he would not.
But instantly, there were signs he would not have a smooth path forward. Donors balked, saying they wanted someone new. Donors, as well as supporters in key states like New Hampshire and Iowa had worked for Bush family candidates for years, and felt more loyalty to Jeb Bush.
“No one wants to choose between them,” said Barry Wynn, a prominent South Carolina Republican.
Two more gatherings of Republicans the next week illustrated Romney’s trouble. Congress returned to Washington, and while party lawmakers talked about their respect for the 2012 nominee, they were reluctant to embrace him or even encourage another run.
At the same time, the Republican National Committee, the 168 insiders who make up the party’s governing ranks, met for three days in San Diego. They heard from some prospective Republican candidates, and Romney was a last minute addition.
He appeared on Jan. 16 at a reception on an aircraft carrier. This would be the test of his strength, said the insiders. He spoke for about 15 minutes, wife Ann by his side, and laid out principles a 2016 candidate needed to remember—“In the post-Obama era,” he said, “We need to stand for safety and for opportunity for all people regardless of the neighborhood they come from. And we have to stand for helping lift people out of poverty.”
But there was a telling moment when it was over. Instead of mingling with the hundreds of influential Republicans gathered there -- as a likely candidate might have -- he and Ann left after his speech.
More bad news came a week later, when prospective candidates gathered in Iowa, the nation’s first caucus state, for what was billed as the campaign’s unofficial kickoff. Romney did not attend.
But he got bad notices from conservatives, who have distrusted him for a long time. They have several prominent possible candidates to choose from this time, and believe Romney let them down in 2012. Craig Robinson, editor of TheIowaRepublican.com, called Romney’s standing among conservatives “a big problem.”