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FILE - In this March 15, 2013 file photo, former Massachusetts Gov., and 2012 Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney pauses while speaking at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md. Romney has said he will not run for president again, but Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, says he has a gut feeling Romney will run. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Romney returns to political stage as GOP prepares for midterms
First Published Apr 18 2014 08:10 am • Last Updated Apr 18 2014 10:12 am

One rainy morning this month, the man who thought he would be president boarded a train near his beach house in San Diego. He stepped off in Burbank, Calif., and caught a ride to a sound stage, where his on-again, off-again political consigliere, Mike Murphy, was waiting to shoot a commercial on a set that bore more than a passing resemblance to the Oval Office.

Looking and sounding like a president out of central casting, he nailed his lines. The crew called him "one-take Romney," and before he departed, they swarmed, extending arms around his shoulders and angling their iPhones for pictures.

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With that, Mitt Romney’s long winter was over.

After retreating from public view following his crushing loss to President Barack Obama in the 2012 election, Romney has returned to the political stage, emerging as one of the Republican Party’s most coveted stars, especially on the fundraising circuit, in the run-up to November’s midterm elections.

He may not direct a high-powered political-action committee or hold a formal position, but with the two living former Republican presidents - George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush - shying away from campaign politics, Romney, 67, has begun to embrace the role of party elder, believing he can shape the national debate and help guide his fractured party to a governing majority.

Insisting he won’t seek the presidency again, the former GOP nominee has endorsed at least 16 candidates this cycle, many of them establishment favorites who backed his campaigns. One Romney friend said he wants to be the "anti-Jim DeMint," a reference to the former South Carolina senator and current Heritage Foundation chairman who has been a conservative kingmaker in Republican primaries. Romney’s approach is to reward allies, boost rising stars and avoid conflict.

Romney has signed his name to sharply partisan email appeals and headlined recent fundraisers from Las Vegas to Miami to Boston. This week, he appeared in his first television ad: a U.S. Chamber of Commerce spot supporting Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, who faces a tea party challenger in a state where Romney remains widely popular. And Romney’s confidants said he will appear in more ads, record robo-calls and stump at rallies later this year.

"He believes in the cause, he wants us to win the House and Senate, and he wants to be useful," said Murphy, who oversaw production of the Simpson ad on April 2 near Hollywood.

Added Tom Rath, a New Hampshire-based former Romney adviser: "He never said he would take a vow of political abstinence. . . . He is a man at peace, but I don’t think that he has politics totally out of his blood."

Romney’s resurfacing has spurred chatter among elite financiers and operatives that he is eyeing a comeback in 2016, much as he tries to silence such speculation. On March 25, Romney visited New York to raise money for Ed Gillespie, a former adviser running for Senate in Virginia. Sitting around the dining table in the Park Avenue home of private equity titan Stephen Schwartzman, Romney poked fun at some of his campaign trail missteps and, according to attendees, assured the two dozen donors that he would not run again.

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Romney is heartened, his intimates said, that the GOP has not cast him aside as a loser. Spencer Zwick, the 2012 campaign’s national finance chairman who is so close to the family that Romney calls him his "sixth son," said he believes Romney has become more popular over the past six months than he was during the election.

"The level of interest in him has skyrocketed," Zwick said. "I think there is an enormous sense of buyer’s remorse, that he was right on Russia and a whole range of issues. I believe if the election were held today, he would win."

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who was a Romney surrogate in 2012 after clashing him early on in the GOP primaries, said Romney is poised to "remain a leading voice in the party for a long time to come," and that he is "way too young, smart, and service-oriented to just fade away."

But some conservative activists would rather see Romney disappear again. Asked about Romney’s moves, organizer Richard Viguerie quipped, "It seems like Groundhog Day."

L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of ForAmerica, a conservative advocacy group, said: "His career is finished. He ran an astonishingly inept campaign, and it is fine if he wants to be a senior statesman for the party. But I hope he’s not trying to advance himself or his moderate philosophy. That would be destructive."

Romney has downsized his once vast political operation to a single aide, Kelli Harrison, and his inbox and cellphone. He keeps up on political developments with a small cadre of loyal former advisers and regularly consults Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who stood in for Obama in his debate preparations, and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., his vice-presidential running mate. Ronna Romney McDaniel, his niece and one of Michigan’s members of the Republican National Committee, keeps him updated on party affairs.

Romney also emails with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, R. In late February, when the two appeared at a Republican Governors Association fundraiser at the Lenox Hotel in Boston, Romney pulled Christie aside to remind him to attend his June summit in Utah.

The conclave in Park City, where Romney purchased a sprawling ski chalet last year, serves as a reunion for Romney’s major donors and top aides, as well as a sales session for Solamere Capital, the private equity firm run by Zwick and Romney’s eldest son, Tagg.

Romney has invited most prospective 2016 presidential candidates to attend. Instead of being another cattle call showcasing well-rehearsed pitches, Romney is giving this year’s retreat a theme - the future of American leadership, at home and abroad - and he has asked all of the featured guests to tailor their remarks around it.

Sen. Rand Paul, Ky., former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Ryan are making the trek to Utah this year, as is Portman. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush declined because of a scheduling conflict.

Eric Fehrnstrom, a longtime aide who still counsels Romney, said the event is "an important touchstone" for the Romney network.

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