WASHINGTON — Four weeks ago, Jeb Bush tried to seize the GOP’s establishment mantle from an unsettled crop of contenders by making crystal clear that he’s moving toward a run for president.
Mitt Romney spoiled those plans on Friday.
All of a sudden, the Republican primary field features a growing group of businesslike state executives in Romney, Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, all competing for the same party establishment donors, operatives and supporters.
The battle between Bush and Romney, once thought to be a long-shot, looks much more plausible after Romney told a group of about 30 top donors in the New York office of Jets owner Woody Johnson that he is considering a third bid for the White House — and that they were free to go tell their friends.
Romney felt he needed to tell his donors what he was thinking “so they could take a pause before they start backing Jeb — that’s really what precipitated this,” a source who attended the meeting said.
The meeting marked a dramatic departure from one year ago, when The New York Times asked Romney about running again and he responded by saying the word “no” 11 times. Now, he’s making phone calls to influential Republicans.
A senior Republican said that during a 10- or 15-minute phone call, Romney said he is quite likely to run. Romney said that his wife recently told him, “If you want to be president, there’s only one way to go about that, and that is to run.”
The senior Republican advised Romney that he could probably put together a pretty compelling video stringing together all his 2011 and 2012 statements about Obama’s weaknesses and failures and he will be seen as somewhat prophetic.
The Republican said he told Romney that he will be a formidable candidate, but it will be a slugfest.
The very real possibility of both Romney and Bush running for president turns what had been conventional wisdom about the still nascent GOP nomination process on its head: No longer would the formula be a field of candidates with right-flank appeal facing off with just one moderate. Instead, a Romney-Bush face-off promises to veer away from policy arguments and offer up a juicy personal fight as the two ‘adult’ figures in the party vie for the same oxygen.
Both have huge advantages that other GOP contenders can’t claim.
Romney built a vast network of donors during his 2008 and 2012 campaigns. And Bush is pulling together his family’s network, which helped his brother, George W. Bush, win the White House in 2000.
Already, the two have engaged in a bit of light sparring, with Bush seemingly taking pains to avoid some of Romney’s 2012 pitfalls.
In recent weeks, Bush has stepped down from several boards and cut ties with companies in an effort to keep his background and business career from becoming the sort of anchor it was during Romney’s 2012 bid.
Bush has said he’ll release at least a decade’s worth of tax returns — far more than the two years Romney released. He’s also committed to releasing a trove of emails from his time as Florida governor, a move that helps him address past scandals well ahead of a presidential campaign. Romney, meanwhile, was frequently caught flat-footed when the Obama campaign recycled old criticisms of his business career.
Bush even offered a post-mortem of Romney’s failed campaign in a December interview with a Miami television station.
Romney erred in failing to defend his time at Bain Capital and was uncomfortable with some topics that came up during the GOP primary, Bush said.
“I think he got off-message. He should have said, ‘I’m a problem-solver. My life has been about building things up and solving problems and moving forward,'” Bush said. “He got sucked into other people’s agendas, and I think it hurt him a little bit.”
Comparing his business background to Romney’s is “like comparing an apple to a peanut,” Bush added.
But Romney’s not without recourse. He could well knock the former Florida governor as out of touch with the current GOP rank-and-file on a variety of issues. Bush has advocated immigration reforms that have angered the right, and he’s been the leading champion of the Common Core education standards that small government conservatives have rebelled against in recent years.
Recent history also shows there’s no love lost between the two men.
Romney world surely remembers that Bush, despite being heavily courted, refused to endorse Romney in the 2012 Florida Republican primary amid a strong challenge from Newt Gingrich.
Bush said at the time that he voted absentee, “And thank God it’s a secret ballot.”
Bush likely hoped to avoid a one-on-one showdown with Romney-like candidate by making a bold move to consolidate the GOP establishment early.
But just as Bush’s December announcement on Facebook that he is “actively” considering a run took the political world by surprise, so did Romney’s comments on Friday.
Though Romney’s wife, Ann, rejected a notion of a third run last year, and some of his sons were also opposed to the idea, Romney made it clear to the donor group that the “family is on board now if he wants to do it,” the attendee said.
While complementary of other potential candidates, Romney also made it clear that he thinks he would be the best GOP candidate among those who are moving toward presidential bids.
Romney’s talk on Friday, however, did not advance beyond the two-time candidate saying that he was giving thought to a run. There was no broader discussion, for example, about the technicalities of getting the various pro-Romney political action committees up and running for this cycle.
Kristy Campbell, a spokeswoman for Bush, said in a statement merely that he “respects” Romney, but wouldn’t be affected by the chatter.
“His process moving forward won’t be impacted by Gov. Romney’s decision to explore a run — and I would assume it is the same on the reverse side,” she said.