WASHINGTON -- An exit lane could be opening up for Mitt Romney to get off the expressway to a 2016 presidential campaign after he raised the possibility of running again, only to only be met with a chorus of no's. Or, alternately, his private meeting this week with Jeb Bush in Utah, reported by the New York Times, could be the first clash between the two former governors vying for the moderate faction of the Republican Party.
The meeting, requested by Bush and set to happen as early as Thursday, was planned before Romney started making an aggressive push to revive a campaign and make a third go for the White House, the Times reported.
Bush’s team told the Washington Post that the former Florida governor, who campaigned with Romney in 2012, was looking forward to catching up. “This meeting has been on the books for some time. Governor Bush is very much looking forward to the opportunity to catch up and visit with [former Massachusetts] Governor Romney. He respects him very much,” Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell told the Washington Post.
Regardless of the original agenda, it could be Bush’s best shot at forestalling a Romney campaign and getting the twice-failed candidate to back his bid. Romney began testing the waters a few weeks ago, telling donors he was considering another run. But that news was met with widespread discouragement a host of GOP influencers like Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal and Meghan McCain, the daughter of two-time presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.
But the poll numbers are equally bleak for both men. A Washington Post-ABC poll released Thursday shows Hillary Clinton well above her potential GOP opponents in a hypothetical general election matchup. In the hypothetical, Bush gets 41 percent against Clinton and Romney gets 40 percent.
Romney and Bush have been working their fundraising networks in recent weeks. They both have vast networks and some loyal donors, but the Bush family has spent decades building their national network of bundlers and donors. Romney benefited from the network in 2012, but it would likely be impossible for him to duplicate those successes with Bush in the race.
The meeting with Bush would offer Romney the chance to say that after considering the options, he thinks it best to step aside and let others run.
But he and Bush would still have some issues to work out. Bush has been critical of the way Romney ran his campaign in 2012. And he didn’t endorse Romney during the 2012 Florida primary, when he was locked in a tight battle with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and forced to spend heavily to fend off the challenger. A Bush endorsement for Romney, the only establishment candidate in the mix at the time, would have given him a big boost. Instead, Bush waited until March -- almost two months later -- to endorse Romney, after it was already clear he'd be the victor.
If Romney is holding onto 2012 -- in more ways than one -- then it may be impossible for Bush to convince him to give up on 2016.