Romney exit jolts 2016 GOP field
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Mitt Romney shook up the 2016 GOP field on Friday with his announcement that he won’t be seeking the presidency for a third time. 

In a call with supporters early on Friday, the 2012 nominee said it’s time to “give other leaders in the party the opportunity to become our next nominee.”

“I’ve been asked, and will certainly be asked again if there are any circumstances whatsoever that might develop that could change my mind,” Romney said. “That seems unlikely. Accordingly, I’m not organizing a PAC or taking donations and I’m not hiring a campaign team.”

Potential GOP candidates were respectful in their responses to the former Massachusetts governor’s decision, which came after a surprising three week flirtation with another run. 

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush thanked Romney for his service and said he hopes his “days of serving our nation and our party are not over.” Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioBush ethics lawyer: Congress must tell Trump not to fire Mueller The private alternative to the National Flood Insurance Program  Cruz offers bill to weaken labor board's power MORE said he “deeply respect[s]” Romney’s decision to “give the next generation a chance to lead."

But the contenders also know that the early exit of a formidable fundraiser with a deep political network bolsters their chances of winning the party’s nomination.

Republican strategists say Bush is the biggest beneficiary — the two appeared to be gearing up for a heavyweight fight for donors, top-level political operatives and the right to claim the party’s establishment mantle.

Bush had already had success poaching former Romney donors and staffers. This week he landed David Kochel, Romney’s former top Iowa adviser, who signed on to be Bush’s senior political strategist with the intention of moving into the role of his eventual campaign manager.

The political scion has an early start on the field, moving up the timeline for many other potential opponents. The nucleus of what will likely be Bush’s campaign team moved to Tallahassee this week to launch his PAC and begin preparing for a White House run.

Romney took an apparent swipe at Bush — the son and brother of two former presidents — on his conference call. The two are among the most recognized names in the party, and Romney said he was confident that someone in the huge field of GOP contenders, likely “one who is just getting started,” would emerge to defeat the Democratic nominee.

“I believe that one of our next generation of Republican leaders, one who may not be as well known as I am today, one who has not yet taken their message across the country, one who is just getting started, may well emerge as being better able to defeat the Democrat nominee,” Romney said.

Romney’s exit does resonate down the field, giving new life to overshadowed candidates and potentially opening a door for some of the GOP’s new faces that have crossover appeal within establishment and conservative grassroots circles.

GOP strategists say that after Bush, Romney’s exit buoys the potential candidacies of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Sen. Marco Rubio the most.

Christie has been handcuffed by his responsibilities at home, and appeared flat-footed in response to Bush’s early moves into the field. He’s also been overshadowed by the Bush-Romney tussle.

But with Romney out, Christie becomes the second biggest name in the field for establishment-minded Republicans. The former New England governor had a foothold on fundraising in the Northeast, and now Christie can press donors in that region to back him instead.

Walker and Rubio could also see a political windfall, building on what has been a big month for both potential candidates.

GOP strategists say Walker falls into the party’s sweet spot – they believe he can pull support from both the establishment and the Tea Party wing as a candidate that can “drive in both lanes,” as Republican consultant Ford O’Connell put it. 

Walker did the most of any candidate to boost his 2016 chances with a rousing speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit last week. His performance went a long way to dispelling the notion that he’s too boring to compete with the big personalities in the Republican field.

Republicans also believe that Rubio has crossover appeal as someone who could find backing from the establishment and in conservative grassroots circles, and say he’ll benefit now that Romney doesn’t loom.

Rubio has instructed his staff to proceed as if he’s running for president and spent the last week courting donors in California and Florida.

It’s the second time this month Romney has upended the 2016 presidential race.

He surprised many Republicans, and even some of his former staffers, by reaching out to donors and political operatives earlier this month about a third consecutive presidential run. But Romney’s candidacy was received coolly by many Republicans who believed he’d had his day.

Still, he was at or near the top of most polls, and believed he was beginning the cycle in a strong position.

Now, he says, he doesn’t want to be a roadblock for those who may be better equipped to become the party’s standard bearer going forward.

“I do not want to make it more difficult for someone else to emerge who may have a better chance of becoming that president,” Romney said. “You can’t imagine how hard it is for Ann and me to step aside, especially knowing of your support and the support of so many people across the country. But we believe it is for the best of the party and the nation."

This post was updated at 5:20 p.m.