The GOP field is in pygmy warlord phase—loud, fractured, and not terribly impressive. The most credible candidate is Jeb Bush, a far-sighted policy wonk whose greatest asset and liability is his last name. Powerhouse Chris Christie still has Bridgegate clouds hovering over his reputation. Rand Paul promises to bring the libertarian revolution to prime time and could inspire enthusiasm beyond the old base—but there’s still that wild gleam in the eye of the Kentucky ophthalmologist who would have his finger on the bomb. Rick Perry and Ted Cruz are the Jekyll and Hyde of Texas politics. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are running to be the president of faith-based America. Bobby Jindal is running to be vice president.

Amid this crowd, Romney remains the tallest midget in the room. And oddly enough, thanks in part to the Obama administration, the flipping Mormon has emerged from 2012 with his reputation enhanced…

“Hillary Clinton is going to raise a lot of money. Who in the Republican field can keep up her pace except Mitt Romney?” he said. “I think he’s the one guy out there that could actually beat her.” He added, “I think our party needs him.”

“I think it’s very real,” one Romney veteran who received a call told msnbc. “You take a look at Al Gore, he did things with his life in business after he lost. Romney’s already done all that. He’s raised his family, he’s been successful in business, he’s run a state. This is what he wants to do.”

“Every time he runs, he learns,” said another close Romney supporter who’s spoken to the governor about the nascent 2016 bid…

Romney has talked particularly about lifting people into the middle class, echoing some of the themes that former running mate Paul Ryan touched on in his anti-poverty initiative last year. (This may not be a coincidence: One source told msnbc they believed Romney was hoping Ryan would run for president. The more his former running mate inched out of the race, the more concerned Romney became with the state of the field.)

“He really has to show people that he’d do it differently, rather than just say he’d do it differently,” said a former top adviser to Romney, one of half a dozen alumni to speak Monday with POLITICO. “He needs to assure folks he’d take a much more direct approach to laying out the vision for his campaign versus having those decisions driven by a bunch of warring consultants.”…

“It would be difficult, hand-to-hand trench warfare,” said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based strategist who was Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s top adviser in 2012. “The class of competitors this time around are a class or two above the 2012 group of contenders. Misreading of polling data is a common affliction that unsuccessful, and too many successful politicians suffer. His first hurdle would be to explain how this campaign would be different then his last two failures.”

“I last saw Mitt in December, and he was bored,” the insider said. “He was watching the world blow up around him and feeling somewhat vindicated on a number of ideas he had put out there and positions he had taken and kind of wondering, ‘Is this the next 20 years of my life, just sitting here?’ He’s a purpose-driven guy.”

But Romney faces a test: Can he convince even some of his most loyal former aides that if he were to run in 2016, he would be a different candidate than he was in 2008 and 2012? 

“How is he able to sell himself as someone who understands the challenges of everyday people? He wasn’t able to do that [in 2012],” said the former Romney operative who is now being recruited by Bush. “That’s what people want, not somebody who can talk about creative destruction or whatever.”

His argument to his former supporters, says one who spoke with him, is that he came very close in the last election against an incumbent president with a good economy. He wouldn’t face an opponent with those kinds of advantages again. (Romney ran against Obama arguing that the economy was terrible; now its health in 2012 is part of the case why he should run again.) He also feels, says one supporter who has spoken with him recently, that he would be crazy to pass up a chance to challenge a “beatable candidate” like Hillary Clinton and let someone like Sen. Rand Paul have a shot at it…

Romney’s supporters also say that while he may have flaws, other candidates do too and he has advantages they don’t have. He has run before and they describe him as more relaxed and looser. With his name recognition and ability to raise ready cash, Romney could possibly take advantage of a shortened campaign calendar that party strategists say will favor well-funded candidates who can compete in multiple states and afford the complicated delegate husbanding operation.

The big question for Romney to consider is this: Now that he has enjoyed a resuscitation of his reputation among Republicans, could he handle coming in fifth in a primary or enduring the everyday indignities of a modern campaign?

it’s not crazy for Romney to think that he’s still viable. While there are bad candidates, it’s also true that losing casts a pall over the memory of the campaign. Neutral incidents are remembered as missteps, and missteps are remembered as disasters. If John McCain had won the 2008 election, his decision to suspend his campaign amid the collapse of the economy would have looked wise instead of standing as a monument to political incompetence. And if Barack Obama had lost re-election, then his hyperfocus on particular segments of the electorate—black Americans, young women, Latinos—would have seemed like a waste of resources, instead of smart and efficient.

Romney made a lot of mistakes, from his rhetoric—a plutocratic message geared to “job creators”—to the actual structure of his campaign. But if “bad candidate” means he underperformed relative to the fundamentals, then he wasn’t a bad candidate. He was average. Given 1.8 percent gross domestic product growth in the first seven months of 2012, President Obama was projected to win 51.2 percent of the two-party vote. He won 52 percent, to Romney’s 48 percent…

There won’t be an incumbent in 2016, and there’s a good chance Americans will want a different party at the helm. If Romney were the nominee, there’s no doubt that he could win the presidency. Indeed, it would fit the pattern of his political career—after losing his race for Senate in 1994, he came back to win a gubernatorial race in 2002.

Via Gravis:

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In the 2008 GOP primary, Romney came up second to John McCain. McCain represented a heterodox strain of Republican thought, and many in the party were wary of his “maverick” streak. So Romney ran to McCain’s right, positioning himself as The Real Conservative Candidate in the GOP primary. It didn’t quite work—he stumbled early, and McCain had the advantage of having “waited his turn”—but it was good for second.

Four years later, with the Tea Party a new force in the conservative movement, Romney couldn’t claim he was the right’s champion (despite his unintentionally comic insistence that he was “severely conservative”). Wisely, he cast himself as The Job-Creating, Economic Turnaround Whiz rather than try to out-conservative his rivals. Not a bad strategy, but not a winning one, either. Most importantly, the economy improved steadily over the course of the campaign, buoying Obama to reelection—the jobs were already created, it turned out. Romney’s strategy also produced some memorable attack ads. Democrats deployed workers who’d been laid off from factory jobs by Bain Capital, Romney’s private-equity firm. He was caught on tape saying that 47 percent of Americans were dependent on government and would never vote for him.

Incredibly, Romney now wants to run in 2016 as The Compassionate Conservative Champion of the Poor. There’s a logic here. Since the economy has been steadily improving for years now, there’s no need for a Mr. Fix-It, and in a field with candidates like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, Mitt Romney will never be the conservative choice. The premises of both of Romney’s previous runs have been completely demolished, so he’s creating a new one out of whole cloth. According to John Dickerson, he has acknowledged that the weak economy is no longer a good basis for a campaign, but he somehow is spinning it as a boon.

The Monday Washington Post story that chronicled Romney’s recent signals to political allies that he intends to run notes, “In the conversations, Romney said he is intent on running to the right of Bush.” That strikes me as quintessential Romney. Put aside the fact that (whatever his drawbacks) Bush’s record as governor of Florida was actually to the right of Romney’s in Massachusetts. How I read this line is that Romney’s assessment of the GOP nomination marketplace has revealed that there is a demand for an establishment candidate to the right of Bush, so he thinks he can manufacture a product with Romney 3.0 that will meet that market demand. Never mind Romney’s actual record or convictions

Romney may have believed some of the stories that surfaced last year about nostalgia for Romney. But this sentiment on the Right (such as “see, Romney warned about the threat of Russia”) was more about pointing out the failures of Obama’s second term than representative of any newfound love of Romney. Conservatives have not warmed up to Romney. They’ve gone easier on him, because they assumed he was retired from politics and they don’t see the need to continue kicking him. That will change should he run for president again, a prospect that perplexingly is looking more likely.

On the other side of the ledger, one can think of numerous ways that Romney has made himself less attractive. The obvious one is by losing. It is a political cliché that Democrats embrace their losing candidates while Republicans disdain theirs. This cliché may be a statistical fluke born of a low sample size, but it perfectly fits a party whose philosophical ethos in general venerates winners and savages losers. The post-election savaging of Romney was widespread and totalistic, ranging from his inept polling and campaign mechanics to his political philosophy. Even Jennifer Rubin, the political commentator most consistently loyal to Romney in the last cycle, has turned against him…

It is possible that Romney, whose clumsy pandering to the right included labeling himself a “severe conservative,” has learned to pander a bit more deftly. This remains to be seen. The Post reports, “Romney has signaled to conservatives that, should he enter the race, he shares their views on immigration and on taxes.” The construction of this sentence is fascinating. It does not say that Romney shares conservative beliefs on immigration and taxes. Instead it states that he will share them “should he enter the race.” The implication, of course, is that he may not share them if he decides not to run…

There is also the messaging problem. And, of course, as a candidate, Romney warned that if President Obama was reelected, the United States would face chronic high unemployment and “fiscal calamity.” Accordingly, he promised to get the unemployment rate below 6 percent by the end of his term. That was a conveniently attainable target if Romney won. Unfortunately, since he lost, unemployment has already fallen below that level and continues to drop. Romney’s sole advantage, his self-styled persona as a business guru who can get under the hood and fix the American economy, would seem to have little remaining credibility.

1. Using talking points like “Ronald Reagan ran three times” treats Republicans like dolts. Fellas, Reagan lost in 1976, then won in 1980 and 1984. Romney might, however, move in on Harold Stassen’s legacy. (Stassen tried for the presidency nine times. Never got there.)…

5. Sure, Romney was right about Russia and plenty else and was the best of the GOP field in 2012, but he couldn’t stop offending large chunks of the electorate (“self-deportation,” insulting the “47 percent,” etc.). His conviction that the GOP has to appeal to the those in the entrepreneurial class, not the people who work for them, was dead wrong. These are reminders that being right and being admirable do not mean you get to be president. This lesson was not lost on a party desperate to win…

7. The idea of running to Jeb Bush’s right does not work when your gubernatorial record is less conservative than Bush’s on health care, taxes, the Second Amendment, etc…

10. Inflicting a third run and almost certainly a third loss on Romney’s family would be, well, cruel.

What they don’t talk about is whether this iteration of Romney will come equipped with a backbone. The last two certainly didn’t, to the point of embarrassment. In neither campaign did Romney take a position that was even vaguely controversial with his party’s rabid base. He was disgraceful on immigration, “self-deporting” himself to Dantean circles of chicanery. He was craven on fiscal sanity, opposing in one debate–along with all his fellow candidates–a budget proposal that would include 90% cuts and 10% revenue increases. Worst of all, he self-lobotomized on the subject of health care, dumbing himself down egregiously, denying that his (successful) universal health coverage program in Massachusetts was the exact same thing as Barack Obama’s (increasingly successful) national version. He never expressed a real emotion–not anger, not sadness, not unscripted laughter. His manner was as slick as his hair.

That was why he lost. Not because of gaffes or because he wasn’t conservative enough (as extreme conservatives claim) or because he was just too rich. He lost because he seemed computer-animated. There was nothing real to him. He was “positioned.” And so he was deemed untrustworthy by the crucial sliver of attention-paying voters in the middle of the spectrum who decide most elections.

So now he’s back and will be successful this time–his backers say–because he’ll be even slicker. No more gaffes. He’ll also be more personal–although it has yet to be determined whether he’ll be an actual person (many market tests to come before such a crucial decision is made).

So it’ll be more of the same, but with different packaging. This is the wrong lesson of the 2012 campaign. Romney had a number of communications foibles, but his big problem wasn’t communications. It was substance. The communications foibles arose in part because the messaging operation had so little to work with, and thus ended up distracted and unfocused, sucked into daily controversies that they couldn’t respond to…

Here’s the problem with this: Even if Romney manages to avoid these sorts of remarks this time around—and that’s a big if, because every campaign provides a thousand new and unpredictable opportunities daily to put your foot in your mouth—Romney’s verbal flubs from last time will still be on the record. He’ll have to defend them or distance himself from them, repeatedly, and he’ll have to do so without contributing too much to the not-insane perception that he’s an ideologically unmoored flip-flopper…

But in another sense, I think he hasn’t changed, not really: He’s still someone whose interest in running for and being president comes before any serious inkling about what, exactly, he’d do if he got the job, and he’s still someone willing to overhaul his self-presentation in order to sell himself to whatever cohort he thinks is politically ascendant at the moment. So sure, the third installment in the Romney franchise would be different. But in the ways that matter, every sign so far suggests it would just be more of the same.

As a two-time Romney supporter, it pains me to say this: It is extremely unlikely that he will ever be president no matter what he does now

In the 2012 primaries, Romney barely edged out a selection of hapless, underfunded rivals to win the nomination. In the general election, he could not pluck any states off the Obama 2008 landslide map, save North Carolina and Indiana. This despite the fact that the dynamics were much less favorable to Obama than they were in 2008.

The list of Romney 2012’s self-inflicted political wounds is painfully long: self-deportation; I’m not concerned about the very poor; I like being able to fire people; “47%”; tax return and Swiss account fiascos; lack of a coherent Bain Capital strategy; flubbing Benghazi; etc. Even once the election was over, Romney’s tone deafness gave the GOP another mess to clean up…

For all their shortcomings, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and John Kasich – among other potential 2016 GOPers  – have political track records that are much more successful than Romney’s. They are simply better politicians than him.

Mr. Romney could win New Hampshire if he proves to be a strong candidate. If that happens, the effect on Mr. Bush’s chances is obvious. Without New Hampshire, Mr. Bush is likely to go 0 for 2 in the first two contests. Winning the nomination despite losing both Iowa and New Hampshire is not impossible, of course, but it would be hard.

Even if Mr. Romney doesn’t carry the state, he could win enough votes to deny Mr. Bush a victory there — perhaps handing the state to Rand Paul. Ron Paul, Mr. Paul’s father, won 23 percent of the vote in New Hampshire in 2012; even modest additional gains could allow the younger Mr. Paul to triumph over a divided field.

“There are some who believe that a path to Republican victory is to run to the mushy middle, is to blur distinctions,” Cruz said. “I think recent history has shown us, that’s not a path to success. It doesn’t work. It’s a failed electoral strategy. I very much agree with President Ronald Reagan that the way we win is by painting with bold colors and not pale pastels and I think that’s gonna be a debate Republicans are gonna have over the next two years.”

“It is certainly a debate that I intend to participate in vigorously,” the first-term Texas senator added.

Imagine that, conservatives? A three-way battle for the soul of the [establishment] GOP? For its money, consultants and votes?

Good news, we think.

Because at the same time the establishment wing of the GOP if flying into disarray, the right’s presidential candidates appear more serious, and more organized, than they have been in decades. Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and, yes, Marco Rubio, aren’t just selling books and going on cable– they’re actually current and elected politicians hurriedly laying the necessary foundations for a serious presidential run, working grassroots activists, party leaders, pastors, donors…

The first battle of the campaign is about to begin, conservatives. Put down the sword and grab some popcorn.

Via RCP.