SAN DIEGO, California -- Mitt Romney is back -- but the whole band isn't necessarily thrilled about getting back together for a third presidential run.
National Republicans are meeting at the swanky Del Coronado resort on the southern California coast this week to hammer out the details of the 2016 presidential nominating process. With Romney set to address the gathering late Friday evening, his first comments since news broke that he's considering another bid, the GOP operatives and officials in attendance are all asking themselves one thing: Would they get back on board?
"I guess I'll be with Romney?" said one former early state staffer, with a shake of the head and a near eye-roll. "I've got other things going on," said another Republican who worked for the Romney campaign in 2012. "We all love Mitt," said a third, "but I just don't know." The former staffers spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
To be sure, Romney has intense loyalty and support from a cadre of top aides and longtime financial backers, many of whom have mobilized since Friday to make calls on his behalf. In San Diego, several close supporters were meeting with committee members and other key operatives who could mount another campaign. One key Romney ally said that the former governor received personal encouragement from early state donors who declined to support him in 2012. And on Thursday, Colin Reed, who ran Scott Brown's Senate race in New Hampshire in 2014, announced he would begin working for Romney on a volunteer basis.
But the wide hesitation on display in the halls of the RNC Winter Meeting underscores the larger reality that prompted Romney to inject himself into the emerging 2016 race at this point: Many Republicans had been well on their way to signing up with a different candidate this time around. With former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush moving quickly behind the scenes, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie still expected to make a bid, and others like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and even Texas Gov. Rick Perry also in the mix, an establishment that had no real second choice in 2012 suddenly had plenty of good options.
"We've got a lot of talented candidates in this potential election in 2016. We want all of them to have their voices heard, hear from the young guys, the new guys, the new faces. We'll give Gov. Romney a chance. But no one's going to hand it to him on a silver platter," said Matt Moore, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party.
Much of the party's last two years have been about trying to fix what went wrong in 2012 -- and it's not clear that Romney would ever be able to overcome Americans' perception that he can't identify with their struggles. Exit polls showed only 18% of voters in 2012 believed that Romney "cared about people like me," compared to over 80% who believed President Obama did.
At the winter meeting, Chairman Reince Priebus and committee members will set an earlier convention date and are hoping to announce a more limited primary debate schedule for the coming summer and fall. And it's all aimed at making sure what happened in 2012 -- a Romney loss -- doesn't happen again. The 22 primary debates set Romney up against candidate after candidate, as each GOP challenger seemed to take their turn at trying to topple him. The debate stage is where Romney infamously advocated that immigrants "self-deport," a position that even Romney's campaign manager acknowledged came back to haunt him.
The earlier convention, meanwhile, is designed to avoid what happened in the summer of 2012, when the Romney campaign ran out of money but couldn't yet raise funds for the general election. The Obama campaign spent three months hammering him on the air, the attacks essentially unanswered.
As the formal committee meetings proceed in the ballrooms and the potential Mitt-vs.-Jeb debate plays out in the hallways, other potential Republican candidates have sent emissaries to build relationships or are coming to speak themselves. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will speak at a Thursday evening dinner; beforehand, he will dine privately with officials from early primary states. Texas Gov. Rick Perry will speak at a lunch on Friday, and has interviews and meetings on the sidelines of the meeting.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie isn't in San Diego. But he's spending at least some time this week nurturing his potential 2016 ambitions, taking time after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's inauguration to meet with state legislators, pastors and GOP organizers in the first-in-the-South primary state.
"We'll give Gov. Romney a chance. But no one's going to hand it to him on a silver platter."'
Also in attendance at the RNC meeting is Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. She and former Huckabee aide Alice Stewart are holding meetings with donors and committee members as they work to lay the groundwork Huckabee would need to make a decision about running for president. Huckabee kicks off a tour for his new book, "Guns, God, Grits and Gravy," in Iowa at the end of the month.
The establishment figures that populate the RNC aren't necessarily a natural home for a candidate like Huckabee, who surged to victory in Iowa in 2008 on the strength of evangelical grassroots conservatives. But Stewart said the gathering was still an opportunity to show Huckabee is serious. And other supporters at the meeting suggested that a Bush-Romney feud might open a lane for someone like the former Arkansas governor to slip through.
"The embers are still burning in Iowa," Stewart said. "We're trying to find out if they can light a fire."