Senior GOP source to CNN: Romney told me it's "likely" he'll run for president

“Wait, AP,” you say, “didn’t we already learn this on Friday?” Why, no. What we learned on Friday is that he’s thinking about running and is now willing to admit that to his donors. Thinking about it and being likely to run are two different things and I’m not splitting hairs semantically in saying so: There were reports this weekend that people close to Romney remain skeptical that he’ll take the plunge despite Friday’s announcement. “The message here to Jeb is ‘slow your roll,’” said one Romneyworld veteran to Time magazine. “There are donors who are very protective of Mitt and don’t like to see him treated this way.” In other words, Romney telling the world that he’s thinking about getting in is less an expression of serious intent than an expression of annoyance that Jeb Bush is trying to corner the market on wealthy Republican fundraisers while other potential candidates, Mitt Romney included, are still weighing whether to run.

But if that’s true, that Friday’s news was nothing more than a “gadget play” to get Bush to back off, how to explain these tweets from CNN political director David Chalian?

I can believe that this is all just an elaborate fake-out by Romney and that he’s not really serious about running again. I can’t quite believe that what’s driving it is Romney’s egomania, his inability to sit by and watch while Bush snaps up all the big money among the GOP establishment. That feels uncharacteristically petty and even counterproductive given that Romney would surely prefer to see Bush win the nomination than someone more conservative. If he knows in his heart of hearts that he’s not running, he should grit his teeth and encourage Jeb to pile up the dough. The better armed Bush is financially, the better his chances to run the table and snuff the tea-party threat early. Why force him to slow his roll if Ted Cruz will benefit? Meanwhile, I keep seeing quotes in stories about Romney’s deliberations noting that he’s not impressed with Bush’s political skills, doesn’t believe Bush will have an easier time on his private equity dealings than Romney himself had, and, frankly, may not like Bush all that much personally. (Buried in this WaPo piece is a reminder that not only did Bush endorse Romney relatively late in the 2012 primaries but said of his own vote in the Florida presidential primary, “Thank God it’s a secret ballot.”) If all of that is true, that Romney legitimately thinks Bush can’t beat Hillary if he’s the nominee, then yeah — suddenly it seems entirely plausible that he’s “likely” to run. Against all odds and logic, he may have convinced himself that he, Mitt Romney, is the very best the GOP can do against the Democrats for two consecutive presidential cycles. That seems to me the strongest explanation for why he’d dare risk splitting the establishment by waging a war of the RINOs against Jeb while Cruz, Paul, and the other righties sit back and laugh.

But maybe there’s a third explanation that reconciles all of this. If Romney legitimately doesn’t want to run but also legitimately fears Bush is too weak to win the election, there’s a solution: Throw his support and fundraising network to one of Jeb’s rivals. Christie would normally be the choice since he’s the most moderate candidate in the field apart from Bush, but it’s hard to see Mitt lavishly rewarding the guy whose nomination speech at the 2012 convention was famously more about himself than it was about Romney and who then slobbered compliments over Obama for his Sandy handling a few days before the big vote. If Romney’s looking to play kingmaker, he’s probably looking for a different king. One obvious possibility was Paul Ryan, but Ryan told the world just this afternoon that he won’t run in 2016. He’s too busy with Ways and Means. Another possibility is Marco Rubio, who increasingly sounds like he’s getting ready to run despite all the naysayers (me included) thinking he couldn’t possibly make a go of it with Jeb in the race. I thought that, with Bush cannibalizing most of the Florida money and staff that Rubio would be counting on, Rubio would have no choice but to stand down. But what if … he wasn’t counting on Florida money? What if a very wealthy, well connected, generous benefactor who doesn’t appreciate Bush’s early attempt to usurp him as king of the establishment decided to get behind Rubio and help him build a campaign? Romney may never be president himself but having the undying gratitude of a president whose victory he almost single-handedly enabled would be quite a consolation prize. Is that what Romney’s thinking here? Stay tuned.

Update: No sooner did I finish this post than this WaPo story came a-tumbling across the wires.

Dude, it’s happening.

Mitt Romney is moving quickly to reassemble his national political network, spending the weekend and Monday calling former aides, donors and other supporters — as well as onetime foes such as Newt Gingrich.

Romney’s message was that he is serious about making a 2016 presidential bid. He told one senior Republican he “almost certainly will” run in what would be his third campaign for the White House, this person said…

In the conversations, Romney has said he is intent on running to the right of Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who also is working aggressively to court donors and other party establishment figures for a 2016 bid. Romney has signaled to conservatives that, should he enter the race, he shares their views on immigration and on taxes — and that he will not run from party orthodoxy.

Is that why Paul Ryan suddenly declared today that he won’t be running — because Mitt told him this weekend that he’s running himself, leaving no assets out there for a Ryan (or Rubio) candidacy?

Romney’s strategy here is obvious. He’s going to try to be the sort of hybrid establishment-but-conservative candidate that Scott Walker or Marco Rubio would otherwise be, the guy who’s far enough to the center that he’ll be electable but far enough to the right that he’s preferable to Jeb Bush at least. And you know what? Establishmentarians might tolerate that, notwithstanding the fact that it risks splitting the center. They’d much rather have a war between Bush and Romney that one of them wins than have someone who’s more of an unknown quantity, like Walker, surf the “anybody but Bush” sentiment on the right.

Anyway. Romney/Bush or Bush/Romney? It’s never too early to start thinking about this, my friends.

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