DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A shake-out among fiery conservatives with White House ambitions was always a sure thing. Now it appears the competition among the more establishment-minded GOP candidates for president will end up just as fierce.
With Mitt Romney's move in the past week toward launching a third run for president, there are three high-profile Republicans from the party's mainstream suddenly competing for the same group of elite donors and staffing talent, just as the crowded 2016 presidential primary season begins.
And that list — Romney, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — doesn't even include a group of Midwestern governors, led by Wisconsin's Scott Walker, who also fit the mold of accomplished, economic-minded executives driven as much by a pragmatic approach to governing as their conservative ideology.
"We've never seen anything remotely like it," said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican consultant who has advised presidential campaigns. "There's no analogous situation with three bigfoot characters in the mix."
The abundance of Republican presidential prospects who put economic policy ahead of social issues comes after GOP congressional leaders succeeded last year in beating back primary challenges from farther-right, tea party-affiliated candidates on their way to reclaiming control of the Senate.
It also sets up a potential contest of mainstream Republicans not seen since 2000, when George W. Bush was the favorite in a crowded field, or 1988, when then-Vice President George H. W. Bush was the heavy favorite.
Not one of the ambitious Republicans has formally entered the race yet. But more than a dozen candidates are preparing for what is widely seen as a once-in-a-generation opportunity — an open White House and no Republican heir apparent with a claim to the nomination. The group features no shortage of conservatives with untested mainstream appeal, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Carson joins Romney on the agenda at this week's Republican National Committee winter meeting in San Diego, where another cultural conservative favorite, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Wisconsin's Walker are also slated to appear. Other would-be presidential contenders are sending senior aides to the three-day meeting to gauge interest in a prospective run.
Romney was added to the program just 36 hours before Wednesday's opening session, having spent much of the weekend phoning leading Republicans and key former supporters across the country to signal serious interest in a 2016 campaign. Those calls continued Tuesday, as Romney reached out to Arizona Sen. John McCain, the party's 2008 nominee.
Romney's potential leap into the race seemed unthinkable a week earlier, when Bush and Christie were seen as more than capable of satisfying the establishment's desire for mainstream candidates with White House-worthy resumes.
"By and large, they're all going after the same base (of donors)," said former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, a senior adviser to Romney's 2012 campaign and among those he called in recent days to talk about another run.
"One of the things you have to determine is whether you can raise the money, and I think that's one of the things he's calling around about now," Talent said. "I would feel pretty confident about that with him. He's always been pretty good at mobilizing support."
A spokeswoman for Jeb Bush welcomed Romney to the race this week, but she suggested the former Massachusetts governor efforts wouldn't affect Bush's own plans.
Bush will not attend the San Diego gathering, but he will have volunteers on hand to engage with GOP officials.
"Gov. Bush has tremendous respect for Gov. Romney," said spokeswoman Kristy Campbell. "In the coming months, Gov. Bush is going to actively explore a potential run and his timetable and his decision will not be impacted by Gov. Romney's decision to move forward, and we would assume that the reverse is true as well."
While Bush, Romney and Christie dominate the conversation about the developing GOP race, lesser-known potential candidates are also hoping to attract attention this week.
A senior adviser to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Terri Reid, is headed to San Diego to talk up her recently re-elected boss, a former CEO whose accomplishments include helping deliver Detroit out from bankruptcy. Snyder is among the group of Midwestern governors, elected and re-elected in swing- or even Democratic-leaning states, who could emerge as establishment picks should Romney, Bush and Christie all flame out.
While some establishment donors predict that Christie will suffer most from the crowded field, his camp suggests Bush and Romney actually cause as much trouble for each other, if not more.
Christie is making moves that suggest he's preparing to move forward sooner than expected, including a State of the State speech on Tuesday that sought to define his record at home for voters elsewhere.
He has also been on a victory tour attending Republican governors' inaugurations, which will take him to key early voting states like South Carolina and Iowa this week, just as his team prepares to add outgoing Republican National Committee finance chairman Ray Washburne to lead its fundraising operation. Further, high-profile Republican donors in New York and Virginia are planning meet-and-greet events for Christie with donors for later this month.
Wilson, the GOP, consultant, noted the choice facing establishment donors after several months of maneuvering.
Many initially backed Christie but became nervous about his chances. They then turned to Bush, who, as a two-term governor of the nation's largest swing state and the son and brother of presidents, was seen as a proven alternative. Meanwhile, others had held out hope for Romney.
"Now, all of their dreams have come true," Wilson said. "It is a fascinating moment among those folks."
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in Trenton, New Jersey; David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Missouri; Michael J. Mishak in Miami and Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report.