Mitt Romney is asserting himself as a leader of the Republican Party at a time when the GOP lacks a true standard-bearer.
As the huge field of Republican contenders begins the long slog to the party’s 2016 nomination, Romney is working to connect select candidates with his vast political network, urging the party to learn from his past mistakes, attacking Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMeghan McCain: 'SNL' parodies made me feel like 'laughing stock of the country' Hill: Trump reelection would spur 'one constitutional crisis after another' Trump defends indicted GOP congressman MORE and taking forceful stances on controversial issues.
Last week, the former Massachusetts governor was the first major Republican to call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol after the shooting deaths of nine African-Americans at a black church in Charleston.
GOP presidential contenders were far more cautious about entering the debate. Now, many of the candidates face criticism for their hesitancy.
“You’re going to see more of this unvarnished Mitt than the Mitt that seemed so calculated when he was running for president,” said Tom Rath, a GOP strategist in New Hampshire and senior adviser to Romney’s 2012 campaign.
“He’ll pick his fights carefully, but he won’t be reluctant to speak up when he believes an issue needs to be framed a certain way, or to provide cover to the candidates,” Rath said. “He might step on some toes, but you’ll see him be more aggressive.”
While past presidential losers have tended to fade into the background, Romney went about the business of repairing his political image after his humbling defeat at the hands of President Obama in 2012.
It’s a renaissance that first came to fruition in 2014, when Romney crisscrossed the country in support of Republican candidates. He endorsed early in the primaries and quickly earned a reputation for backing rising stars, such as now-Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who fought through a crowded primary field with Romney’s help.
The former Massachusetts governor ended the cycle, which saw big Republican gains in the House and Senate, as the most sought-after GOP surrogate — a position that had seemed nearly unthinkable just two years before.
“I think a lot of people questioned what his role was going to be going forward, but he proved to be critical to Republican efforts in 2014, raising millions of dollars and helping electable conservatives win in the primaries,” said Ryan Williams, a former Romney spokesman who now works for a firm that does consulting work for Jeb Bush.
“Our party has not had a national leader for some time. We haven’t been in the White House since 2008,” Williams said. “Gov. Romney has stepped up.”
There had been some speculation Romney would make a third bid for the presidency in 2016, but that faded with his announcement in January that he had “decided it is best to give other leaders in the party the opportunity to become our next nominee.”
Those who know him best say he’s not likely to endorse a GOP candidate during the primaries. But they expect him to steer resources and attention to those candidates he believes best represent the party’s interests.
In an appearance on “Meet the Press” this month, Romney said there are about a half-dozen GOP candidates he believes could be effective presidents. He mentioned former Florida Gov. Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate GOP campaign arm outraises Democratic counterpart in September House passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure Senators call for answers from US firm over reported use of forced Uyghur labor in China MORE (Fla.) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich by name.
In June, Romney hosted all of those candidates except for Bush, who was traveling in Europe at the time, at a retreat in Park City, Utah. Various GOP donors and power players were also in attendance.
“He sees an opportunity to shape the debate and be somebody the donors look to for wisdom and guidance on who they should support,” said Katie Packer Gage, Romney’s deputy campaign manager in 2012.
“I don’t think he’s looking to give any specific candidate a leg up, but he’ll point it out when he thinks candidates are showing strength and leadership,” she said. “He also may call people out when he thinks they’re being petty, in an effort to elevate the debate.”
Romney hasn’t shied away from addressing his own campaign missteps in an effort to make sure the next nominee doesn’t repeat them.
On the same “Meet the Press” appearance, Romney said the biggest mistake he made in 2012 was not focusing enough on the plight of minorities. Romney urged Republicans to reach out to impoverished minority groups to make the argument that conservative principles will help elevate their condition.
“He definitely has an eye on making sure the eventual nominee is well-positioned in the general election to beat Hillary,” said Williams.
Republicans expect Romney will emerge in the general election as a top surrogate for whoever ultimately wins the nomination. In particular, they see an opening for him to go on the attack against Clinton on the issue of foreign policy.
Many Republicans believe Romney has been proven right on a host of international issues that were a drag on him in 2012. During one debate, Romney called Russia the U.S.’s primary geopolitical foe, a declaration that was met with derision by Democrats.
But with Russian President Vladimir Putin challenging U.S. leadership at every turn, some Republicans believe Romney is the perfect messenger to highlight what they see as Clinton’s failures as secretary of State.
“Our job is to defeat Secretary Clinton, and part of doing that is making sure we discredit her time as secretary of State,” said Colin Reed, the head of the GOP opposition research group America Rising. “Given what Romney has said on Russia, he could be the best person speaking out on those issues.”
Influential conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt is pushing Romney for vice president, and other Republicans say Romney would be a natural fit for a prominent Cabinet position, such as secretary of Treasury.
But Romney’s supporters don’t see it. They say he’s content at this point in his life to play loyal foot soldier for the GOP, while remaining free to pursue other challenges that might catch his interest.
“I talked to him a few weeks ago, and it’s very clear that my prayers won’t be answered, and he won’t be running for president,” said Rath. “But this is a great role for him to play. He’s contributing and bringing reason and perspective to the party. He’ll always find something to do.”