As Donald Trump continues to dominate the Republican presidential race, frustration and panic have become high enough to make some inside the party Establishment pine for a candidate they roundly rejected as recently as January: Mitt Romney. Romney himself has become one of Trump's most vocal detractors inside the party. "He's someone to whom civility means a lot. The whole Trump thing really bothers him," a close Romney adviser told me — and some Romney-ites are only too happy to talk up the prospect of their man jumping into the race if the Establishment fails to stop Trump, whose support in Iowa and New Hampshire is currently greater than Jeb Bush's, Scott Walker's, Marco Rubio's, Chris Christie's, and John Kasich's combined.
"Mitt wants to run. He never stopped wanting to run," a senior member of his 2012 team told me. Other Romney-ites, watching this cycle's candidates falling short, feel a sense of vindication after all the attacks they endured after Romney's failed 2012 bid. "These guys like Walker and Perry, they were big deals in their states, but you get them onto the national stage and it's a different story," a former Romney adviser told me. "It's like they were in middle school, and now they're freshmen in high school and they're getting their faces slammed in the toilets." Another former Romney adviser complained about Bush's decision not to go all-in on New Hampshire, a state a moderate must win. "Romney did 100 town halls in New Hampshire from announcement to the primary. It's madness. Bush has done only 23."
Pictures of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama from the 2012 election:
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, 2012 election
Romney is horrified by Trump -- and that's restarting 'Mitt 2016' talk
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, left is greeted by President Barack Obama before the start of the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Moderator Candy Crowley, center, applauds as President Barack Obama, right, shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y. (AP Photo/Pool-Michael Reynolds)
FILE - In this June 22, 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks at a conference in Orlando, Fla. On health care Obama's position is clear, as is that of his Republican opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Obama defends his federal health care overhaul and Romney opposes it. But come next week, when the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the law, both sides are certain to scramble for political gain no matter the outcome. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
FILE - In this June 21, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speak Orlando, Fla. The presidential race enters the sultry summer _ a final lull before a sprint to Election Day _ with President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney neck and neck and no sign that either can break away. Both sides have money concerns _ for all the flood of cash _ as well as political worries. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama listens as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool, Rick Wilking)
President Barack Obama speaks as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Hempstead, N.Y. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
President Barack Obama, right, and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, participate in the second presidential debate, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama attend the 67th annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, a charity gala organized by the Archdiocese of New York, Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
In this Oct. 16, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama spar during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 22, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama walks past each other on stage at the end of the last debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. Obama and Romney courted the Hispanic community during the campaign, but only spent $ 22.8 million on advertising on Spanish language television, from a total cost of $ 355 million on television advertizing in 10 states, according to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of the United States on Friday, Nov. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
Campaign signs for both President Barack Obama, and his challenger, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are seen in yards outside Evans City, Pa., Friday, Nov. 2, 2012. In the final days of the presidential campaign, Romney is making a concerted push into Pennsylvania, aided by outside political groups that are spending millions in last minute ads in the state to help erode Obamaâs 2008 support. Polling shows Obama holding on to a 4 or 5 percentage point lead over Romney, but the trend has been in Romneyâs favor. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
US President Barack Obama arriveS on stage after winning the 2012 US presidential election November 7, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama swept to re-election, forging history again by defying the dragging economic recovery and high unemployment which haunted his first term to beat Republican Mitt Romney. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney arrives to his election night rally, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Boston. President Obama defeated Republican challenger former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
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In reality, the prospect of Romney jumping back into the race at this late date remains exceedingly slim — he's made no visible signs of reassembling his political operation. But he may be able to influence the race more indirectly from the perch he's begun carving out for himself as party elder.
It's a role that's surprising to many Republicans who openly mocked Romney's loss to Obama. (In his memoir, Unintimidated, Scott Walker wrote, "Reagan did not dismiss 47 percent of the country as a bunch of moochers," a reference to Romney's infamous assessment of the electorate.) But Romney's rehabilitation campaign began with his starring role in last year's documentary Mitt and continued with his charity boxing match against Evander Holyfield this spring. It turns out that Romney the noncandidate connects with the public in a way Romney the gaffe-prone plutocrat candidate never did. So much so that Romney openly flirted with a third White House run this winter. "When people were polling this stuff back in January, what was striking was not his popularity but the breadth of it," says Stuart Stevens, Romney's chief 2012 strategist. "Unlike a lot of candidates, his support wasn't siloed. The non-tea-party folks liked him, and the tea-party folks liked him. It's unique."
Today, Romney is the closest thing the Republican Party has to an elder statesman. After the Charleston church massacre in June, he was the first prominent Republican to call for removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. "To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred," he tweeted. Hours later, Bush and Rubio called for the flag to come down. Another sign of Romney's influence: All summer, Establishment candidates aggressively courted him. Over Fourth of July weekend, Christie and Rubio bunked down at his New Hampshire lakefront mansion. A few days later, Jeb Bush invited Romney to the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport. "He's like a counselor to these candidates," says a veteran of Romney's 2012 campaign, who noted that Kasich speaks with Romney as well. "No one has gone wire to wire, beginning to end two cycles in a row. He has a lot of knowledge to share."
Most important, he has money to share, lots and lots of it. Romney's vast donor network is a coveted asset, and Romney's finance wizard, SpencerZwick, who raised $1 billion for him in 2012, remains unaffiliated with any campaign (Zwick now chairs the super-pac America Rising). "Mitt actually attracted new donor groups," says the Romney veteran. "They're in the Mormon community, the Bain Capital community, and the private-equity community. Most of them are not going to jump in for anyone else until they get guidance. Romney delivers them." This is why six GOP presidential contenders went west to prospect for millions at Romney's three-day Utah summit in June. "With Romney, it's just so bizarre," the veteran said, marveling at Romney's power to organize a cattle call. "Imagine Bob Dole. He's out of office and he says, 'I want all my donors to come to some hard-to-reach place.' That's just never going to happen."
The ultimate prize for winning the Romney primary, of course, is an endorsement. Romney has said he has no plans to throw his weight behind a candidate until the party selects a nominee. In private, he likes Rubio the most on a personal level, a close adviser told me. He's also said to enjoy Christie's company. With Bush and Walker, it's more complicated. While Romney remains friendly with the principals, relations between their camps are frayed. Walker's decision to slam Romney in his memoir particularly rankled.
But during primary season, a Romney endorsement would likely just rile up the raging anti-Establishment base. Says one Romney-ite, "He's more valuable in a general."
All officially announced 2016 presidential candidates so far:
All officially announced 2016 Presidential candidates
Romney is horrified by Trump -- and that's restarting 'Mitt 2016' talk
Business mogul Donald Trump (R)
(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont (D)
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson of Maryland (R)
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R)
(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky (R)
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida (R)
(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of New York (D)
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania (R)
(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (R)
(Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Former CEO, Businesswoman Carly Fiorina of California (R)