SALT LAKE CITY – Mitt Romney barely paused last week while making the rounds during a recent reception in the Utah Capitol rotunda when reporters attempted to ask him about speculation he could make a third run for the White House.
“You can ask, but I won’t answer,” Romney said before moving on to mingle with some of the state’s most powerful people, there to celebrate his close friend, Kem Gardner, the namesake of a new University of Utah public policy institute.
The 2012 Republican presidential nominee’s polite but firm refusal to talk about a potential candidacy comes as national news sources suggest there’s new interest in Romney as the best chance to stop controversial front-runner Donald Trump.
“Mitt wants to run. He never stopped wanting to run,” a senior member of Romney’s 2012 team reportedly told New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman in an article that describes the prospect of a Romney run as “exceedingly slim.”
The National Review quoted Romney donors unwilling to contribute to any of the 17 announced GOP candidates, including Dr. Greggory DeVore of California, whose car sports bumper stickers reading, “Romney 2016, I told you so – let’s fix it.”
Longtime Romney supporter Kirk Jowers, the former head of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said seeing Trump rise to the top of national polls has plenty of Republicans pining for Romney.
“I’ve had a number of discussions with major Romney supporters who are near desperate for Romney to get back in the race,” he said. “The Donald Trump effect cannot be underestimated.”
That desperation will only increase the closer Trump comes to securing the GOP nomination for 2016, Jowers said, as Republicans who believe Trump has alienated too many voters to win the general election scramble for an alternative.
“It’s all just talk now. But the perceived demise of a few of the more legitimate candidates and the continued rise of the more marginal candidates are making scenarios where it’s plausible the party could look to Romney to save it,” Jowers said.
“The bigger the doomsday scenario, the more of a ‘white knight’ Romney becomes.”
Trump, whose often bombastic statements have included suggesting Mexican immigrants are likely to be criminals, is polling as high as 30 percent going into the next Republican presidential debate, on Sept. 16 on CNN.
Just behind the billionaire businessman in the polls is another political outsider, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Meanwhile, candidates viewed as more in line with the party establishment are struggling to break into double-digit percentages.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, an early favorite for the nomination, sits in third place according to an average of recent polls, followed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz,Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Still, the first real test of the 2016 presidential race won’t come until the Iowa caucus vote, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 1.
“It’s a little too soon to get panicky,” University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said. “I think some support for Trump is probably pretty soft. It’s easy to tell a pollster you’re going to support someone over the phone.”
Showing up on a cold winter night in Iowa to cast a vote in a caucus meeting is a lot harder, Hagle said, noting at this point in the last presidential cycle, Republican voters said their pick was then- Texas Gov. Rick Perry, not Romney.
Hagle said a Romney candidacy is “probably not likely” because, unlike 2012, there are a number of so-called establishment candidates, including Bush, Walker and Rubio, said to be a favorite of Romney, who isn’t endorsing in the primary.
Of course, if enough of those candidates are forced to drop out of the race because Trump continues to dominate the polls, that could create an opening for the party to turn to Romney.
But Hagle and University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala agreed that is unlikely at best.
“A white knight is a good analogy because that’s the ultimate fairy tale,” Scala said. “Every political junkie like me would like to see that story happen in their lifetime. But I don’t buy it.”
If Trump succeeds in the early voting states, which include New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary election following the Iowa caucus, Scala said, Republicans will find a candidate to rally around.
With so many to choose from, that shouldn’t be a problem, he said.
“I think that’s much more likely to happen than a scenario of, ‘In case of emergency, break glass’ and pull Mitt out,” Scala said. “Romney is not running and lots of other quality Republicans are. It would take a cataclysm.”
Jowers said there’s very little chance, if any, Romney would get into the race before the early primary results are in. To compete in primary races, candidates have to file as early as November for a place on a state ballot.
But even though Jowers said Romney would have little trouble raising money and bringing together supporters, it might take a brokered convention to get him in the race.
Should the party be unable to nominate a candidate at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland next July, Jowers said, Romney would be ready to take the spot on the November ballot with strong approval ratings.
“It’s the forbidden-fruit thing,” Jowers said. “He’d still be tanned and holding grandkids on beaches all the time, so we’d love him.”
Romney supporters point to a recent picture the former Massachusetts governor posted on Twitter showing him on a beach with a sleeping grandchild in his arms and the message, “Treasuring what’s most important in life.”
The tweet, they say, should make it clear Romney isn’t interested in another run.
An adviser who spoke to Romney several days ago told the Deseret News that Romney has not changed his mind about the race since announcing in January he was closing the door on 2016 despite a strong showing in the polls then.
That’s the same message delivered recently by Eric Fehrnstrom, a top aide to Romney in both of his presidential bids, as well as during his time as Massachusettsgovernor.
” Mitt Romney has made his decision. He is not reconsidering it,” Fehrnstrom told CNN, calling him “very content watching from the sidelines in the company of his family.”
Fehrnstrom later used a reference to the ancient desert fortress in Israel, which was the scene of a mass suicide by Jewish rebels who wanted to avoid slavery under the Romans, to describe those who still hold out hope Romney will run.
“They’re like the last holdouts at Masada,” he told the Deseret News. “I love their passion and energy and loyalty, but I don’t think Mitt is going to reconsider his decision to stay out of the race.”
Contributing: Katie McKellar