Romney's Exit Shakes Up the 2016 GOP Chessboard

Jeb Bush will probably collect some of Mitt's chips—but Mitt's own analysis is that he was leaving an opening for another kind of candidate.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, right, talks with former Florida Governor Jeb Bush aboard his campaign plane on Oct. 31, 2012.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Mitt Romney's decision to exit the presidential race reshapes the contours of what remains a wide-open primary campaign, intensifying the competition for donors and staff among more than a dozen would-be rivals.

The most immediate beneficiary of Romney's departure from the race appeared to be former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who had already begun picking up key Romney aides and donors for his growing campaign. Romney's decision enables Bush to potentially gain many more, increasing the early monetary and strategic power of his growing operation.

But despite Bush's perceived fundraising dominance, he has yet to show that kind of commanding strength in early state polling. With a fluid field of potential candidates, Romney's network could end up heading in a number of different directions.

Supporters of Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie spun a Romney-less field as good news for candidates backed more strongly by the party establishment, anticipating, perhaps, how the race's focus will shift from the competition between Bush and Romney to Bush and Christie. "A number of folks I have talked to over the past few weeks about raising money for Jeb told me they needed to wait for Romney to make up his mind," said Dirk Van Dongen, a Republican fundraiser in Washington who backs Bush. "Now that they're free, they'll presumably come over to Jeb."

Aides to both men, said one donor, will spend the weekend combing through the long list of donors who they had assumed would be a lock for Romney.  "If Mitt had run, my deep friendship and loyalty to him would have been determinate," said Virginia presidential fundraiser Bobbie Kilberg, who had just gotten off the Romney calls on Friday. "Now that he's out, my husband and I are free to back Chris."

No longer a candidate, Romney remains a powerful force in the party, whose endorsement will be coveted by his former prospective opponents. He sat down with Bush last week in Utah. "They're two friends getting together to make sure their friendship stays intact to get through an awkward moment," said Mike Leavitt, a Romney confident, said of the meeting. Aides said Romney plans to meet Christie tonight, though the meeting was scheduled several months ago. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker tweeted on Friday that he, too, had a "great conversation" with Romney.

According to aides, Romney has a close relationship with Christie, who his team vetted for the vice presidential pick in 2012. They eventually decided against the New Jersey governor out of fear that various controversies could become major campaign issues.

His relationship with Bush is more fraught. Some Romney advisers are still grumbling about Bush’s role in the 2012 campaign. Despite calls, e-mails, and private meetings with Romney before the hard-fought Florida primary, Bush endorsed Romney in March—nearly two months after the state’s contest and when the nomination was already within the former governor's grasp. A few months later, in the midst of the general election, Bush criticized Romney's approach to the immigration issue, saying at a Bloomberg View event that he needed to “change the tone.”

In private conversations with aides, Romney has stressed the need to provide a sharp contrast with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic nominee. Concern that he would be unable to strongly make the kind of old verses new differentiation that Romney feels is necessary for Republicans to win influenced his decision to step out of the race, said one aide. Speaking to supporters on a Friday conference call, he indicated that he would favor a fresh face over, perhaps, the most famous name in Republican politics.

“I believe 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 said. He added: "I do not want to make it more difficult for someone else to emerge who may have a better chance of becoming that president."

He could also mean other candidates that have run before, like former Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Those candidates, along with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and other presidential hopefuls, may have to move more quickly to firm up their plans if they want to mount credible bids, given the momentum of Bush's growing organization.

The decision to step out of the race after a very public three week flirtation was an emotional one for Romney. Close staff members delivered a less-than-glowing assessment of the field and spoke of enthusiasm for their candidate in early states on a conference call with Romney last week. But they understood the challenges: Romney would have to work hard at both keeping his donors and his support.

Family members—including his wife, Ann, and son, Tagg—along with longtime backers, had encouraged the former Massachusetts Governor to jump into the race after polling showed him leading the Republican pack. A Netflix documentary about the family's previous presidential bid had also helped rehabilitate Romney's image by showing the more compassionate, family-oriented side of the private equity titan—giving his champions hope that the public could connect with him in a different way. He spent the last few weeks trying to rally support from former donors, allies, and staff. In calls, he vowed to strike a different tone by focusing his campaign on poverty, middle class mobility, and foreign policy.

But Romney's aspirations were met with disdain by many in the party establishment, who feared Romney's weakness with Latinos and penchant for gaffes would doom them to electoral failure.

On Friday, though, much of the party offered praise for their previous nominee. Bush applauded Romney on social media, saying the fellow former governor is "a patriot."

"Though I’m sure today’s decision was not easy, I know that Mitt Romney will never stop advocating for renewing America’s promise through upward mobility, encouraging free enterprise and strengthening our national defense," Bush posted on Facebook. "I look forward to working with him to ensure all Americans have a chance to rise up.

U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who criticized Romney on Sunday during a forum in California, saying the former nominee couldn't connect with voters, posted on Twitter that he and his family "deeply respect" Romney's public service.

Romney, in turn, encouraged his backers to help other candidates, who will benefit from the staff, money, and support freed up by his decision. "I’ve been asked, and will certainly be asked again if there are any circumstances whatsoever that might develop that could change my mind," he said. "That seems unlikely."

--With Michael C. Bender.

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