Will Mitt Romney run for president in 2016?
Everywhere he goes, on campaign trails across America, people ask. His old running mate, former staffers and close friends get the question, too, and feed the flames of speculation.
Romney keeps insisting there's nothing to it.
"I'm not running, I'm not planning on running, and I've got nothing new on that story," he told Bloomberg on Monday.
But there are reasons he continues to be asked, and why the chatter will continue — namely, the weaknesses of potential Republican candidates.
The 2016 Republican presidential field is a mess right now. Each major candidate, despite their apparent strengths, has equally apparent flaws. And in the face of the unknown, Republicans are taking another look at a very familiar face.
If Romney chooses to run again, the 2012 runner-up might find the terrain more hospitable than many people assume. Here is a look at a few potential contenders and their weaknesses that just might have Romney thinking there's room for him in the ring:
Jeb Bush might not be so formidable after all.
The conventional wisdom among handicappers of the 2016 GOP race is that the big-money donors in the Republican Party are waiting on the former Florida governor to make his move. Former President George W. Bush, his brother, thinks he wants in. Their mother, Bloomberg reports, is now coming around to the idea. If only because it would please his dad. Seriously.
But does Bush have the taste for it? He played this game four years ago and eventually decided against getting in the race. He hasn't held elected office in seven years. And his penchant for sharing humane thoughts about immigrants and the poor have left him out of step with tea party-types.
Bush presents the biggest obstacle for Romney. If Bush goes for it, there leaves little room for Romney to step in. But it's still far from certain that Bush will run, and he may end up being a far weaker candidate than the Republican establishment currently assumes.
Chris Christie still hasn't recovered.
The scandal over the closure of the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 seriously damaged the New Jersey governor's standing. While the initial attention has subsided, "Bridgegate" provided a glimpse at what a national Christie campaign might look like. If, as the governor himself has conceded, the people working for him took vengeance on a small-town mayor for not supporting Christie's all-but-assured re-election bid, how would he deal with real political threats?
Many Romney allies do not like Christie. They think he is arrogant and, even before Bridgegate, considered him a liability due to undisclosed ethics issues — "land mines" being their chosen term. Christie needs Romney's fundraisers, but Romney could, with just a wink, keep them on the sidelines.
Rand Paul has a foreign policy problem.
Recently the subject of a very interesting profile in the New Yorker, Paul, the Kentucky senator, is the prince of American political libertarians (his father, former Congressman Ron Paul, still holds the throne).
But Rand Paul's history of isolationist tendencies could cripple him in a primary fight. Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) former campaign manager, Mark Salter, wrote that, if Paul were the nominee in 2016, "Republican voters seriously concerned with national security would have no responsible recourse other than to vote for Hillary Clinton." It's a concern that many in the Republican establishment share.
Romney-backers love pointing out how very right their candidate was to call Russia the United States' No. 1 "geopolitical foe." It has become a foundational part of their argument for why, they argue, the country would be better off with Romney. Unfortunately for Paul, foreign policy is his soft spot with establishment Republicans.
Marco Rubio has had an awful year.
Let's start with this: Who hasn't Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, pissed off in the past year? Or, to be more kind: Has Rubio made any new friends lately? The answers, respectively, are "a whole lot of people," and "none that come to mind."
The slide began with his calculated gamble to take the podium with a bipartisan group of senators and pledge to help broker and ultimately close the deal on a comprehensive immigration reform package.
That was in April 2013. A little more than six months later, he jumped ship, abandoning any single bill and falling back behind the party line — his office touting his support for a more "realistic" approach that calls for a "series of individual bills."
So where has it left Rubio? To start, the man once touted ad nauseam as a "tea party favorite" might never recover from voting with Senate Democrats on immigration. As for the young (and old and middle-aged) Latinos whose votes Republicans covet and for whom Rubio was hoping to become a standard-bearer, well, they greeted his Aug. 25 speech in South Carolina like this:
With Rubio's bandwagon stuck in the mud, there's no incentive for Romney allies to hop aboard. Romney's operation is sleek and just needs a key turn to get humming again. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) delivered a preview of what's to come, saying of Rubio, "He's a good guy, but after doing immigration with him -- we don't need another young guy not quite ready." You can bet Graham's not the only one thinking that.
Paul Ryan would sit out if Romney ran.
Ryan, Romney's 2012 running mate, told the Huffington Post last week he would not run if Romney chose to hit the trail again.
"I wouldn't if he were. I would support Mitt. If he were to run, I would not," Ryan said Tuesday. "But I don't even know if I'm going to either myself. That's something I'm going to decide in 2015."
So there's an easy one.
More than just being an easy hurdle to clear, the Wisconsin congressman's support is a given. His pull with fiscal conservatives, and the way he pulls in money, would be a major asset from day one.
Ted Cruz is too far to the right.
The junior senator from Texas is a very entertaining political performer and, quite obviously, a very smart guy. But he is easily the least tested national figure in this group. He has just enough of a libertarian streak to give big-money donors the willies, but not enough to put him in a position to lead some kind of national movement.
The rest of the field, though, is what really complicates things here. Cruz would beat Paul and Rubio — the two most alike to him politically — but not by enough that he couldn't be too hobbled to go on past the first few primaries. And one gets the feeling Cruz would just love to be courted for an endorsement.
Romney would have the resources and organization to pretty easily lump Cruz, Rubio and Paul into some kind of Frankenstein of Republican political disaster, especially as the three inevitably lurch right as they try to get tea party folks in their corner.
There's a lot of time between now and the next presidential Election Day. But with no apparent, dues-paid, donor-loved heir to the GOP presidential nomination throne and no unsullied up-and-comer banging on the door, Romney has as good a chance as anyone, perhaps better, at topping the 2016 Republican ticket.