By Peter Sullivan - 08/27/14 06:29 PM EDT
Mitt Romney is in demand, and it’s raising speculation about another White House run, however far-fetched that might seem.
The 2012 GOP standard-bearer has been stumping across the country for Republican Senate candidates, highlighting his popularity two years after losing the Oval Office to Barack ObamaBarack ObamaDem donor irked by Nordic dinner invite Five decades of Democratic convention memories First lady goes to bat for Clinton MORE.
On policy, Russia’s incursions into Ukraine have vindicated his tough stance in 2012, something Obama famously used to mock him as out of touch.
It’s enough for the public to give him a second look.
Romney lost badly to Obama in the last presidential cycle, but a CNN/ORC poll in July found that if the election were held again, 53 percent of adults would vote for Romney, and just 44 percent for Obama.
Romney has repeatedly said he’s not interested in running again, using the word “no” 11 times in a row in one January interview with The New York Times.
On Tuesday, Romney sounded a different note during an interview on “The Hugh Hewitt Show.”
“Someone else has a better chance than I do,” Romney said of the 2016 campaign, saying “that’s why I’m not running.
“And you know, circumstances can change, but I’m just not going to let my head go there,” Romney concluded.
It’s just a sliver of an opening, but it got people talking, particularly given the wide-open race for the Republican nomination, for which there is no clear front-runner.
Furthermore, Republicans are looking for an establishment candidate as an alternative to Tea Party favorites like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and the libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
It’s led GOP observers to say he has a good chance at the 2016 nomination.
“He's one of the very few people who can run and lock it up very early,” said Patrick Hynes, a Republican operative in New Hampshire who advised Romney’s 2012 campaign. “I think there’s a great deal of good will behind him at the moment because there’s buyer’s remorse about President Obama.”
“There’s no clear front-runner, so I certainly think he would be one of the early favorites if he were to decide to get in,” said Bob Rafferty, a former chief of staff to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) and a Romney supporter in 2012.
Hard to believe? Look at the polls.
A Suffolk University poll of Republican Iowa caucus-goers released Wednesday found that Romney swamps the rest of the field, at 35 percent, compared to 9 percent for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is in second place.
Romney says his reason for passing on another run is not that he does not want it. “I’d love to run for president. I loved running for president,” he said in the interview Tuesday.
Instead, Romney says the reason is that someone else has a better chance.
“Had I believed I would actually be best positioned to beat Hillary Clinton, then I would be running,” Romney said. “But I actually believe that someone new that is not defined yet, someone who perhaps is from the next generation, will be able to catch fire, potentially build a movement, and be able to beat Hillary Clinton.”
The standing of other Republican contenders is far from certain, though.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are all tangled in controversies that could lead to criminal convictions. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush might not even run, and Paul would have to win over the establishment to views that are out of the party’s traditional mainstream.
“Let’s say all the guys that were running all came together and said, ‘Hey, we’ve decided we can’t do it. You must do it.’ That’s the one out of a million we’re thinking about,” Romney said.
Stu Stevens, a senior adviser to Romney’s 2012 campaign, did not reject out of hand the possibility of a run when asked if the former Massachusetts governor had a chance of winning the nomination again.
“I pretty much stay away from 2016 speculation,” Stevens wrote in an email.
Another senior adviser, Kevin Madden, said Romney has been clear that he is not going to run.
“You have to measure the ‘circumstances can change’ comment against a much larger body of instances where he said emphatically that he’s not going to run again,” Madden said.
And of course, there are many hurdles Romney would have to face if he ran again.
His favorability has not improved since the 2012 election, staying fairly steady at 47 percent favorable and 43 percent unfavorable, according to a February Gallup poll.
The video of his infamous “47 percent” comments still exists, and he still called for “self-deportation” for people in the country illegally. Both would be major problems in a general election, if not in a primary.
Hynes, the New Hampshire operative, argued some of the same attacks, such as those over his business dealings at Bain Capital, would not work in another election.
“I don’t think the Bain stuff plays a second time around,” Hynes said. “Everybody knows who he is. We’re not going to find any new secrets about his business record.”
How Obama fares in the rest of his second term could also color views of Romney.
“Seems to me he's pretty clear that he doesn't intend to run, and if he opened the door at all with his comment it was the tiniest sliver under the most unlikely of circumstances,” David Kochel, senior adviser for Romney’s 2012 Iowa campaign, wrote in an email.
“That said, he'd make a great president, and I've believed that for a long time now,” he added. “More Americans believe it too after seeing the repeated failures of the current president.”