When Jeb Bush jumped out early in announcing that he was putting together a presidential campaign, he was quickly anointed as the automatic front-runner. Donors were said to dash to their checkbooks to be the first to shower him with super PAC loot. Political operatives were polishing up their résumés in the hopes of being gifted with campaign jobs. The overstuffed GOP field was going to winnow in a hurry as would-be contenders decided the next two years would be better spent angling for Cabinet positions in an eventual Bush administration.
But if the rest of the GOP saw an 800-pound gorilla, one man who did not was Mitt Romney. According to a number of close Romney associates and people who have spoken to him over the last several months, Romney does not see a towering figure in the field but a deeply flawed candidate who would struggle in a race against Hillary Clinton.
In the summer and fall of last year, back when Bush or Romney candidacies seemed like far-fetched ideas, and the former Massachusetts governor was basking in his role as a major get on the GOP fundraising circuit, he would muse aloud about the makeup of the 2016 field. In private conversations, Romney would repeat what he had said publicly—that he wasn’t going to run for president. But privately, according to several Republican donors who had the conversation with him, Romney said he would only get in if at the end of the primary process, the party somehow did not settle on a nominee. But he knew that this was unlikely. “Someone is going to catch fire,” he told one donor.
And even though Jeb was not a candidate, Romney made clear that it would be foolish for the Republicans to run another Bush.
“A Bush can’t beat a Clinton,” another donor quotes the 2012 nominee as saying.
As the primary season heats up, this analysis has been echoed by others, who say that a Clinton-Bush matchup would boil down to a race between the peaceful, prosperous 1990s and the 2000s with its War on Terror and Great Recession—a comparison that the GOP wants to avoid.
But people inside Romney world see other flaws as well. They point out that Bush has not run a competitive race since 1998, when he was elected Florida governor, a lifetime ago in politics. They see someone who has problematic positions on education and immigration, probably the two most crucial issues to the Republican base. They see someone who does not seem to have the stomach for a nasty nationwide battle for the nomination, and a 2016 rollout that has been shaky at best, with its awkward cellphone videos and avoidance of the public and the press.
“They have not done a lot to flush out the details of his candidacy,” said Tom Rath, a senior adviser to Romney in both his 2008 and 2012 campaigns, speaking of Bush. “His time as governor was quite a while ago. A substantial number of Republicans have never heard him deliver a speech. Mitt is a proven commodity.”
This commodity, Rath pointed out, proved its value in the 2014 midterms, when Romney became one of the Republican Party’s most sought-after surrogates, stumping for winning candidates from Alaska to Florida.
“He worked hard for lots of people, from Senate candidates to sheriff candidates. Rank and file Republicans remember that kind of thing.”
Romney associates point to polls that show him running close to Clinton in a general election, and easily besting Bush in a primary.
“And it’s not name-recognition,” said one Romney ally. “Jeb’s name ID among Republicans is 100 percent. Republicans just prefer Romney.”
Romney allies say that the former governor does not have animosity toward Bush, but that as a former businessman, Methodical Mitt wouldn’t attempt a campaign if he did not think he had a good shot at the nomination, let alone the presidency.
“I don’t blame him. He came very close. He should have won last time. And he probably figures that whoever the Republican nominee is is going to be the next president,” said Ken Abramowitz, a GOP donor. “After eight years of President Obama, I don’t think the public is going to want another Democrat.”
Center-right Republicans now say that they are bracing for what should be an unprecedented campaign season. While in years past the business-backed GOP establishment has often coalesced around a single candidate while a battle royale ensues among the crop of grassroots conservatives battling over their share of the vote, this year it is the moderates who are bracing for internecine war. A Republican could conceivably win the nomination in 2016 by eking out a small percentage of the vote in a multi-candidate field.
“I have been telling everybody that we should all coalesce around one candidate,” said Fred Zeidman, a major GOP donor who backed Romney in 2012. “The only problem is they all think that they should be that candidate.”
In time, Republicans know they will have to decide among them, and in conversation many sound like they are weighing the pros and cons of each.
“I think that [Bush] is a solid candidate. He may not be as conservative as others but I feel he can work with folks across the aisle to get things accomplished,” said Glenn McCall, a Republican committeeman from South Carolina.
And as for Romney, “He campaigned really well the last cycle. And a lot of what he warned us about has come true over the last two or three years.”
And if Romney insiders think that Bush is a flawed candidate, there are certainly many Republicans who feel the same way about Romney. Losing twice and coming back to win is unprecedented in presidential politics, and even though Romney has basked in a glow of good feeling over the past two years, he still lost to an incumbent president that many Republicans thought was very beatable.
“Mitt has shown his colors,” said one major fundraiser to Romney’s 2012 effort. “And as a campaigner he is totally shit.”