WASHINGTON (AP) — Members of Mitt Romney's inner circle are shooting down speculation about the former Republican presidential nominee's 2016 ambitions on the eve of a senior staff reunion in Washington.
Those attending Tuesday's private gathering are deeply skeptical that Romney ever seriously considered a third campaign, despite polls that show his stock is rising — particularly as President Barack Obama's popularity wanes. Some of Romney's most trusted aides are already beginning to seek alternative candidates in a crowded 2016 Republican field they say won't include the former Massachusetts governor.
"Until somebody emerges who seems like a much better option, there is going to continue to be speculation," said Katie Packer Gage, Romney's former deputy campaign manager, who is listed as a host of a "Romney-Ryan reunion" in the Pennsylvania Avenue office of a former supporter. The event doubles as a fundraiser for Virginia congressional candidate Barbara Comstock, who was a policy adviser on Romney's first presidential campaign and a volunteer on his second.
"We haven't seen anybody we can get more excited about," Gage continued. "I take him at his word that he doesn't have any intention to run."
Romney has repeatedly denied interest in a third presidential bid, even as polls show him as one of the nation's most popular Republicans. After spending much of 2013 in political exile, he has ramped up public appearances this year, largely to benefit Republican congressional candidates on the ballot this November. Advisers report that Romney will launch a new round of campaign stops in late September into early October to benefit midterm candidates, even in states he lost during his last presidential campaign.
Romney over the weekend again insisted he is not pursuing another White House bid, repeating what has become a familiar refrain in recent months as Republican activists and donors struggle to identify a clear leader among the crowded class of prospective 2016 candidates already jockeying for position.
"I'm not running. I'm not planning on running," Romney said on "Fox News Sunday." ''I'm going to be helping the person who takes the banner for us."
Tuesday's event features Romney's 2012 running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, and is expected to draw senior Romney advisers and donors from across the country. Besides Gage, the hosts include Romney's former campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, political director Rich Beeson, finance director Spencer Zwick, and senior advisers Stuart Stevens, Beth Myers, Peter Flaherty and Ron Kaufman, according to an invitation obtained by The Associated Press.
"He believes in his heart he'd be a good president, but he also believes he had his chance and it's someone else's turn," Kaufman said.
Another reunion host, former spokesman Kevin Madden, said Romney hasn't left much room for interpretation: "While many genuinely think the governor was the right person to be leading the country right now, he has made it clear, repeatedly, he isn't running."
A CNN poll released late last month gives Romney a big lead among Iowa Republicans over a list of candidates that includes former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ryan. Romney has also led early polls in New Hampshire, which follows Iowa as the second contest in the GOP presidential primary process.
Gage says Romney's team will always be intensely loyal, even if they don't believe he will run again.
"The mood in that group is that if he does decide to do it, none of us are any less committed to him now than we were three, four, five years ago," she said. "But at this point in time I don't think he has any designs on this."