Jim Merrill, the political strategist who managed Mitt Romney’s first campaign in New Hampshire in 2008 and was an adviser in 2012, said his phone started ringing off the hook as soon as the news broke.
“Romney people in New Hampshire were asking, ‘Is this for real?’” Merrill said. “Romney people around the country are asking if this is true.”
What is true is that Romney, in an apparent change of heart, told donors today that indeed, he is in fact considering a third run for the presidency. Until today, Romney had said publicly that he will would not be a candidate, while leaving the door open a sliver in private meetings.
Today, that door opened much wider.
Others close to Romney said that while they dismissed the early rumors that Romney was considering another run, now they are becoming convinced that he’s getting serious.
Top Granite Staters who have ties to both Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were fascinated by the possibility of having them in the field along with the rest of the lineup – Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, etc., etc.
A battle with Romney and Bush as the lead players, supported by a cast of “thousands,” would only add to the importance of the New Hampshire Primary.
“Were Mitt to run,” said veteran GOP stratetist Tom Rath, “the stakes in the primary will never have been greater.”
Former Gov. John H. Sununu served as the White House chief of staff to Jeb Bush’s father and was one of Romney’s prime surrogates in 2012:
“With the news about Jeb Bush’s interest and Mitt Romney’s interest and some of the great Midwestern governors the Republican Party has to offer, I think their intention is to make my life difficult trying to make a choice,” he told the New Hampshire Journal.
Former Sen. Judd Gregg, a close friend of the Bush family and a close friend to Romney, said, “It doesn’t surprise me. When you look at the field, it’s a much stronger field than in 2012, when we really had only one person, Mitt Romney, who was qualified to be President. I tend to believe the nominee will be a governor or former governor.
“It’s going to be a big field and someone who has been around the track and has credibility in the party, and who most people feel ran a very good race in the sense that he stuck to Republican issues, will have a good chance. There is a lot of buyers’ remorse in the country about Mitt Romney,” said Gregg.
Gregg said that while it is “way too early” to say how a field with both Romney and Bush – as well as the others – would shake out, Romney “would come in as one of the named favorites. He has an organization ready to go and he’d be formidable.” Gregg said, “I also happen to think that John Kasich (the Ohio governor) is also a force.”
Gregg predicted the field will be large in New Hampshire, but as always, the primary will substantially narrow that field and, he said, the race will eventually be won in Florida.
Sununu agreed that the potential of a Romney candidacy “just underscores how strong a field the Republicans will have this year. I think it has to be a governor or former governor to come into the White House to clean up the mess that President Obama has caused. I think Republicans are going to have a fantastic choice.”
Merrill, one of Romney’s most devout supporters in New Hampshire, said he had not heard anything directly about Romney prior to the late afternoon reports, but was not surprised.
“He is drawn to service and has given a great deal to our party and our country. He is someone who will find a way to make a difference no matter what he does,” Merrill said. “He probably feels it is incumbent on him to take a hard look at this and consider what a candidacy would entail for himself and his family.”
Merrill said Romney would begin in New Hampshire as the frontrunner in the GOP primary, which Romney of course won in 2012, but lost in 2008. “But if he and Jeb Bush and all of the others who are considering running do run, we’re going to see a primary like we’ve never seen before. It will be a hard-fought and I think it will be very close in the end. It’s enormously exciting for New Hampshire and the rest of the country. It’s extraordinary.”
Ryan Williams, the former NHGOP press secretary who was Romney’s deputy national communications director in 2012, said his former boss, because he has been the GOP presidential nominee, “has a built-in advantage and has a strong grassroots and donor network that could be activated at a moment’s notice. The vast majority of former Romney supporters would likely support him again.”
And, said Williams, “his image has only grown since the end of the 2012 campaign.”
NHGOP chair Jennifer Horn, who will stay neutral in the presidential primary (as she has in all GOP primaries since becoming chairman), said, “There are a lot of very good people looking at this race and New Hampshire Republicans will give them all a fair look. There’s no question that Mitt Romney has earned a great deal of respect and affection in New Hampshire, and I’m sure there are many here who are watching closely to see what he does.”
From the other side of the aisle, state Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley watches with interest as the potential GOP field grows and grows.
“It appears every Republican across the nation is looking at the list of 20 or so mentioned as potential Republican presidential candidates and saying, ‘Why not me?’ At this rate the New Hampshire Primary winner may only need 15 percent of the vote!”
Time will tell if that is the case. But in the meantime, what a year it is shaping up to be.