The Romney-Christie axis unites against Jeb Bush

In the race for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination, there can be only one… establishment candidate.

When the news broke late Thursday night that David Kochel, a once loyal Mitt Romney aide who managed the former Massachusetts governor’s Iowa campaigns in 2008 and 2012, had jumped ship and joined former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s camp, it went off like a bomb.

The hire signaled to many that Romney’s campaign-in-waiting was floundering and that it was acceptable for donors and former staffers alike to abandon the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. What’s more, by hiring the architect of Romney’s virtual tie in the 2012 Iowa caucuses, it indicated that Bush planned to compete for every Republican delegate available to him. In short: Bush was serious, and Romney was not.

That wisdom was confirmed on Friday when Mitt Romney revealed that he would decline to mount a third presidential campaign. Romney’s decision has also set off a frantic scramble among establishment-friendly GOP operatives to unite behind the two remaining Beltway favorites who likely remain the race: Bush or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

“Early word of Mr. Romney’s decision sent waves through the Republican donor world early Friday, as Romney aides began to telegraph the news to donors and other staff members and strategists,” The New York Times reported on Friday. “Some donors immediately began calling representatives of other potential candidates, such as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, to discuss offering their support.”

It should come as no surprise given the unveiled acrimony between Bush and Romney that the former Massachusetts governor seems to be contemplating putting his weight behind Christie:

Mr. Romney’s announcement will mark the beginning of a day of reckoning with his would-be rivals. He is scheduled to have dinner with Mr. Christie on Friday evening, according to two people with knowledge of his schedule, suggesting that Mr. Romney may be considering throwing his support, and that of his own political operation, to Mr. Christie. The two men are friendly — and Mr. Christie, along with former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, was a main rival of Mr. Romney for the favor of the Republican establishment.

If that is true, it is a significant development. Many have interpreted Romney’s statement about leaving the 2016 nomination to “our next generation of Republican leaders” as a veiled swipe at Bush who has not run for public office since 1998. According to a report via Mark Halperin, though, Romney’s team thoroughly vetted Christie in 2012 amid a search for a running mate and didn’t like what they found.

Romney and Christie became friends in the last cycle, but Romney nevertheless has dismissed his pal as a non-factor. Thanks to the 2012 veep vetting process, Romney is intimately familiar with some of the less publicized controversies from the New Jersey governor’s past, and believes that several of those flaps would mushroom so broadly that Christie soon would be eliminated from consideration by voters and donors.

Of course, Halperin also joined The Daily Beast in claiming that all signs indicated that Romney was going to pull the trigger on a 2016 run, so it might be worth taking this revelation with a grain of salt.

What is clear is that it’s too soon to say whether Romney plans to back Christie outright – a development that would give him access to an established national team of competent campaign operatives and donors – or if he simply plans to back the governor in a less visible fashion. In fact, Romney may determine that it is in his best interests, and perhaps those of the Republican Party, to remain neutral in the contest between these two establishment colossi.

On the other hand, perhaps Romney is only meeting with Christie in order to convince him to follow in his footsteps and clear the field for another governor who, unlike the Garden State executive, enjoys the support of the Republican grassroots: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Romney was always going to support a fellow member of the governor’s club in 2016 – if it wasn’t him, it would be another member of this exclusive set. Between Christie and Walker, it seems today as though the latter is more likely to emerge from the early state primaries in a competitive position.

It is virtually unthinkable at this stage of the race, however, to imagine that Romney and Bush would bury the hatchet.