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Mitt Romney benched himself, but remains a player in 2016

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The Friday afternoon following Mitt Romney’s decision not to enter the 2016 campaign fray, my radio show was booked solid with journalists who, like me, were trying to read the “invisible ink” in Romney’s announcement, which I had obtained and posted a few minutes before the 2012 nominee began his call with donors. Getting such a scoop was a fine thing for me, but 2016 not getting Romney’s participation in the primaries is a disappointment to his legion of supporters and and every political journalist in the land who longs for an “open convention” in Cleveland in the summer of 2016.

That “open convention” is still very much a possibility but it needs the arrival of one or two more serious candidates to make it so with Romney gone, and despite Jake Tapper’s caution that Romney’s announcement had not been Shermanesque, I think the former Massachusetts governor has gone from would-be king to king-maker.

Following the trails of his key circle of advisors and aides, from Spencer Zwick to Jim Talent to Robert O’Brien will be important sleuthing in the days ahead. Mitt Romney spoke of the need for a “new generation” of GOP candidates, and while instantly understood by most as a shot at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, it could also have nicked former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. If you’ve got a “former” attached to your name in press accounts, perhaps Romney is talking to you?

No one is dropping out of the race because of a nudge from a candidate whose support, while influential and powerful, won’t be dispositive until last spring of 2016 or even in Cleveland, if ever. What matters next is whether the last four shoes fall: Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. If even one of these moves to replace Romney in the lists, the “open convention” scenario gets a jolt of joy juice. So “candidate watch” moves from Romneyworld to these four. (Note to their teams: It turns out to be good to build suspense and then leak the announcement via HughHewitt.com for maximum play and completeness and accuracy. Just sayin’.)

A Rubio entry would set off a Godzilla-Mothra contest for Florida, leaving the Sunshine State in much the same state as Tokyo after one of those epic sci-fi film battles. It would also allow the first ever “all-in-Spanish” forum with candidates Bush and Rubio being the only participants in, say, the Telemundo-Radio Luz event, which Biola University President Barry Corey told me Friday he’d host in a minute. (Biola has an enormous population of Spanish-speaking students from around the world.)

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has rescued the country and the candidates from the destructive chaos of endless debates with his rollout of a nine to 12 event schedule, but smaller groups of the candidates should do more of what Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Rubio did in California for the Koch Partners event ten days ago. A Rubio-Bush paring on the stump conducted in Spanish would be a giant interest generator, as would panels of sitting governors such as Bobby Jindal, Kasich, Snyder and Scott Walker talking energy and water policy — they all have coasts and/or energy resources — and Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Pence and Perry talking job generation.

Two of the gang — Cruz and Rubio — have spent the most time detailing plans for rebuilding the military and reasserting America’s strength abroad, and pairing them on the road makes sense. Common Core shadows all the campaigns even as it touches every mom in every state, and forums — not “debates” and thus not afoul of the Reince Reforms — on the subject of Common Core will pack halls and raise or lower the standing of various campaigns.

And over on the sideline: Mitt Romney, watching, helping, and waiting to deliver a decisive endorsement even as Charlie Crist did for John McCain in Florida in 2008. Romney put himself on the bench Friday, but remains very much in the game.

 

This column was originally posted on WashingtonExaminer.com.

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