Mitt Romney wanted to go out on his terms.

The former Massachusetts governor and two-time presidential candidate pulled back from the brink of a third run only after determining that he could position himself as going out on top

Many in the political world laughed at the idea that Romney would run again, and Romney was losing the battle for political staff and donors, sometimes badly. On Thursday David Kochel, who ran Romney’s Iowa campaign in 2012, was announced as going to work for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as a national adviser. And political operatives who admired Romney expressed hope that he would decide not to run, for his own sake. Romney had built up good will with many in the party, but that would dissipate quickly as a primary campaign heated up. And even those who had worked for Romney believed he did not comprehend the way he would be reduced to tatters in a primary.

In the three weeks since Romney told a group of donors he was considering a 2016 campaign, a series of influential Republicans have issued what amounted to anti-endorsements. Nearly all of them said Romney would make a good president, but questioned if the party should make him its candidate again after he lost in 2012…

Privately, in conversations with Romney’s aides, longtime Romney supporters raised pointed questions about a third run…

Romney’s supporters had argued that Ronald Reagan lost GOP primaries in 1968 and 1976 before being elected in 1980. But Romney faced another big obstacle: Jeb Bush.

For party donors and operatives, Bush combines what they like about Romney, an experienced former governor with moderate views on policy issues and a fresh face who has not already been rejected by the electorate. And many in the Republican Party had been supporters of the Bush family, in either George W. or George H.W. Bush’s campaigns, before they joined Romney.

Once again, it seems Romney has ended up in the right place at the wrong time. As I noted a couple weeks ago, when the Romney boomlet began, he ran in 2008 as a true conservative candidate. But after the disappointments of the George W. Bush’s second term, a conservative former governor simply wasn’t what his party wanted. If Romney had beaten John McCain in the GOP primary, he might have been perfectly poised to win the White House: With the economy collapsing, a turnaround whiz from the private sector could have appealed to many Americans. But it was too late for that. McCain floundered, and Barack Obama won.

The best time for Romney to run for president was probably in 2011, when President Obama’s standing was still battered by the recession and the backlash to the Affordable Care Act. It was the right moment for a guy who could sell himself as a business leader with a track-record of fixing troubled enterprises. Unfortunately for him, the economy improved enough over the course of the following year to help Obama win reelection in November 2012 by a solid margin…

The natural pattern of presidential elections suggests that Democrats are the underdogs in the 2016 race—a party seldom holds on to the White House after two terms, and Nate Cohn notes that current economic models would suggest a Democratic popular vote of 48.5 percent. If Romney could have won the Republican nomination, he might have been able to realize his dream of becoming commander in chief.

But just as circumstances seemed to conspire to produce the perfect moment for Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush pulled the rug out from under him.

Mitt Romney would have faced numerous challenges in the presidential nomination lead-off state of Iowa if he had decided to enter the 2016 presidential contest, a new Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll shows.

Forty percent of Republicans likely to participate in the 2016 Iowa caucuses view Romney unfavorably, up from 30 percent in a similar October survey, while his approval rating dropped to 57 percent from 65 percent. Likely caucus-goers were also skeptical about their party’s 2012 nominee potentially entering the race. Nearly half–45 percent–didn’t want him to do so…

The former Massachusetts governor would have carried plenty of baggage, if he’d decided to venture back into presidential campaigning. Twenty-seven percent of likely caucus participants said the fact that he lost by a wide margin in 2012 was a deal-killer for them, while another 27 percent said it was a factor they’d consider. 

Testing other potential vulnerabilities, Romney’s ties to Wall Street could have again proven to have been a problem for the former private equity executive, even among Republicans. Sixteen percent of likely caucus-goers said Romney would be eliminated from their list if it were shown that he is “part of the Wall Street elite and favors looser regulations on banks.”

Beyond the obvious point—you can’t fake authenticity, Mitt—there is a cancer in the Romney body politic that even eleventh-hour sincerity won’t cure: Voters don’t trust him.

Once you’re revealed as a serial phony, you can’t lose two presidential races and shout, “Do over!” You can’t convince voters that your forked tongue now spoons hard truth. You can’t snap your fingers and convert your bull to Bulworth.

Especially in 2016—when the Internet gives voters instant access to a record of flip-flops that, in pure numbers and severity, suggest that Romney is not merely a politician who has “evolved” or “matured.” He either abandons his convictions when political opportunity strikes—or he has none.

It should also be a disappointment for supporters for Democrat Hillary Clinton, considered the clear front-runner for her party’s nomination.

Clinton’s supporters would have like to run against Romney, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. For one, many potential Republican presidential candidates are talking about the need to present voters with a “fresh face” in 2016, an argument that Romney could  not have used against against Clinton.

“And you know the right is going to go after the establishment, but if you have multiple establishment candidates tearing at each other, that adds a wrinkly to the kind of mud being thrown,” Murray said. “It would have been helpful mud for Clinton to use in the general election.”

In his announcement to his supporters today that he will not pursue a presidential bid next year, Mitt Romney took a parting shot at the man who would’ve been his chief rival for the nomination had he entered the race: former Florida governor Jeb Bush. 

“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. ”In fact, I expect and hope that to be the case.”…

His supporters are starting to talk. “A number of Romney bundlers and foreign-policy folks have reached out to me this morning,” says Robert O’Brien, who served as a top Romney bundler in 2012 and a member of the governor’s foreign-policy team. “This is going to be the most wide-open primary that we’ve seen in our lifetimes. With Mitt getting out it does not appear that there’s any frontrunner at this time. What I’m hearing from Romney bundlers reflects the wide open field. Several have indicated that they will be signing up immediately with Jeb. I’ve heard from several others who are going to be supporting Ted Cruz. I heard from others who expressed an interest in Governor Kasich if he runs. Among the policy folks, there seems to be among the national-security hawks there seems to be a strong and growing interest in Marco Rubio and several folks are taking a close look at Scott Walker.” 

But wait. O’Brien adds, “Several Romney bundlers are still holding out hope that circumstances will change and Governor Romney will reenter the race. I personally think that that is highly unlikely.” 

The absence of a Bush-Romney race and narrative, which would have dominated the political discussions and cornered a significant amount of establishment money, now means the GOP more likely will be engaged in a debate about future versus past, frontrunner versus a field of lesser-known candidates

Until Friday, Christie advisers tried to offer reasons why having both Romney and Bush in the race could be beneficial at least in the short term (the two bigger names would leave Christie freer of early criticism and allow him to build his campaign slightly in the shadows rather than being targeted by Democrats and some Republicans). But that was distinctly a minority view within the party. Romney out is clearly good for Christie, if he can do something with it…

The space Romney’s departure creates, however, can be a mixed blessing for the others now moving toward running. Had this been a Romney-Bush contest in the coming months, other, lesser-known candidates could have emerged more slowly. Now they, too, will be in the spotlight.

Count me as hugely disappointed that Mitt Romney will not run for president this time. As I wrote nearly two months ago, though, it’s not that I want him to be the nominee. It’s just that I don’t want Jeb Bush or Chris Christie to be the nominee, and Romney’s participation in the race would have made it more difficult for either of them to win the nomination — and, likewise, their participation would tend to cancel him out. 

Now, as somebody who thinks we need to move beyond the families prominent way back in 1968, I am devoutly wishing for Marco Rubio to do enough to cut into Jeb Bush’s Florida base, and for Christie to do just barely well enough among moderates, to combine to keep Bush from taking pluralities in all the early- primary and caucus states…

Maybe we can get Romney to reconsider . . .

But I actually think that if he had decided to run, he would have had a better chance than anyone of getting the Republican nomination. Every GOP primary campaign for the last half-century has begun with an obvious front-runner, and every one of those early front-runners got the nomination. Romney would have been that front-runner, as reluctant as many in the party were about his candidacy. In recent GOP races, the winner hasn’t been the one who defeated his opponents, just the one who outlasted them, as one chucklehead after another became the flavor of the month and then self-immolated (remember when Herman Cain led the primary polls in 2012?). Romney could certainly have stuck around until the end.

But now the 2016 race is truly a free-for-all, with no obvious leader. And if the only lesson Republicans take from 2012 is not to nominate a CEO (sorry, Carly Fiorina), they’ll make the same mistakes all over again…

The prevailing attitude in GOP circles is that Romney failed because he was the wrong messenger. Yet almost every contender is preparing to offer voters the same policy agenda that Romney did. They may be saying now that they’ll talk about wage stagnation and inequality, but when you ask them what they’re going to do about it, their answer is the same as it has always been: cut taxes and cut regulation. It’s going to be awfully hard to convince voters that they’ve had a real change of heart. And anyone who deviates from Republican orthodoxy is already finding themselves on the defensive (as Jeb Bush is for his less-than-total enthusiasm for deportations).

Ted Cruz:

Mitt Romney has spent decades in public service, and I appreciate his leadership. He has created thousands of jobs in business, led a successful Olympics, and served as governor of Massachusetts. And he worked tirelessly in 2008 and 2012 to try to turn our country around.

His announcement today that he will not be not running in 2016 surely came after much prayer, and it cannot have been easy. Regardless of whether he is a candidate, Governor Romney will continue to be a respected leader having a positive impact on our national discourse.

Mitt, Ann, and their five sons have embodied graciousness, decency, and dedication to our nation. I thank them for their selfless service, and the ongoing contributions they will continue to make to helping restore the promise of America.

I thought Mitt would have led our nation well. At every stage in his career, he’d led well — and with integrity. And while I didn’t agree with all the choices he’d made, I respected the way he made them. I appreciated that in an era of relentless media pressure to move left, during the course of his life he moved to the right, and with conviction.

Mitt Romney is a good man. Over the last eight years, my wife, Nancy, and I have had the privilege of getting to know Mitt and Ann, and when I deployed to Iraq they reached out to Nancy in meaningful ways — always indicating that they were thinking of me and praying for me. They hosted her at their home in Utah one weekend while I was gone, giving a struggling mom a much-needed weekend of rest. But those are minor stories compared to the myriad ways that Mitt and Ann support others — taking time from career and campaigns to serve those in need. It greatly distressed me that his campaign couldn’t bring itself to tell some of these stories until well after Republicans and Democrats had spent hundreds of millions of dollars mis-branding him as the second coming of Gordon Gekko…

While the 2016 race will be extraordinarily challenging, that challenge will pale in comparison to the challenges of governing a nation in the face of long-term economic stagnation and uncertainty, resurgent jihadism, re-emerging great-power conflicts, and profound domestic division. If we have a new conservative president, he or she will need help, and I know that Mitt Romney will be happy to serve. And he will serve well.

Via Common Cents.