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Mitt Romney tells backers he won't run for president in 2016

Mitt Romney told supporters Friday he will not run for president, putting an end to a dizzying three weeks in which he explored a third White House bid.

Mitt Romney's decision not to run for president dramatically reshapes the 2016 Republican field, freeing up a flood of campaign cash and saving the party from a divisive fight with Jeb Bush to consolidate GOP establishment support.

On a conference call with supporters Friday, reading a statement first leaked to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Romney, his party's 2012 nominee, said he was confident in his ability to win the nomination and the White House but decided it was best to hand the reins to another candidate.

"I believe that one of our next generation of Republican leaders, one who may not be as well known as I am today, one who has not yet taken their message across the country, one who is just getting started, may well emerge as being better able to defeat the Democrat nominee," Romney said. "In fact, I expect and hope that to be the case."

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It wasn't an easy decision. Former aides described a burning belief in Romney that he would be a strong president and that he owed it to America and the Republican Party to run. Supporters eagerly pointed to polls showing Romney leading the GOP field nationally and in early states -- polls that Romney himself proudly cited in his call on Friday. 

But the path would have been difficult. Unlike last time, when Romney was largely unopposed among establishment Republicans, his campaign would have faced an expensive competition for frontrunner status with Bush and other prospective contenders like New Jersey Gov.  Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Bush begins as the favorite in this set. But Walker is generating serious buzz as a dark horse, Christie stands to benefit from Romney's newly freed Northeastern donors and Rubio's resume is too strong to rule him out. 

Even if Romney had emerged from that pool as the favorite, he would have had to overcome a tough cast of conservative insurgents as well including Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, former Romney foes Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, and wild cards like tea party favorite Ben Carson. Some conservative activists were openly rooting for a Romney run in order to split moderate support, which they viewed as their best chance of sneaking one of their own into the nomination.

That path looks a little narrower now, but there's still plenty that could go wrong on the establishment side of the playoff bracket. Romney himself hinted he'd consider reentering the race -- he said it "seems unlikely" -- and he'll remain a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option for some Republicans should Bush collapse and a tea party firebrand emerge as the likely nominee.

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While his standing among Republicans remained relatively strong, Romney's broader image suffered badly in the 2012 campaign, capped off by a hidden camera video of him telling donors that "47%" of Americans were hopelessly dependent on government and would not vote for him. More voters expressed a negative view of him than a positive one in national surveys taken before and during his recent flirtation with a run. But these issues aren't unique to Romney. Bush also gets negative marks, thanks in part to his family baggage. And recent polls -- while very early-- show Hillary Clinton leading all GOP comers. Whichever Republican candidate wins the nomination will have to find a way to overcome broader party troubles with Latinos, young voters and women that doomed Romney in 2012, either by eating into Democratic margins or boosting white support to new heights.

Romney played an influential role championing his favored candidates in the 2014 midterm elections and could do the same in 2016 if he chooses. The New York Times reported that Romney is scheduled to have dinner with Christie on Friday. Romney considered Christie as a possible running mate in 2012, but some supporters felt betrayed after the New Jersey governor praised Obama's handling of Hurricane Sandy in the final stretch of the 2012 campaign.

Romney met last week with Bush, who had already poached a former top Romney strategist, David Kochel, along with some wealthy financial backers of Romney's 2012 campaign before Friday's news.

"Mitt Romney has been a leader in our party for many years," Bush said in a statement. "There are few people who have worked harder to elect Republicans across the country than he has. Though I'm sure today's decision was not easy, I know that Mitt Romney will never stop advocating for renewing America's promise through upward mobility, encouraging free enterprise and strengthening our national defense. Mitt is a patriot and I join many in hoping his days of serving our nation and our party are not over. I look forward to working with him to ensure all Americans have a chance to rise up."

Paul, who had mocked Romney as old news in recent days, tweeted: "I hope to work together with Mitt to grow our party and lead our country forward." Rubio said Romney "certainly earned the right to consider running" in a statement and that "there hasn't been a day when I didn't think that Mitt Romney would have been a better president than Barack Obama."