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Will 2016 donors hold their breath — and wallets — for Romney?

Mitt Romney is leaving the door open — ever so slightly — to the possibility that he could run for president for a third time in 2016.
Mitt Romney acknowledges an ovation as he takes the stage for remarks during CPAC in National Harbor, Maryland, March 15, 2013.
Mitt Romney acknowledges an ovation as he takes the stage for remarks during CPAC in National Harbor, Maryland, March 15, 2013.

Mitt Romney is leaving the door open — ever so slightly — to the possibility that he could run for president for a third time in 2016. That, coupled with some in the party urging the former Massachusetts governor to give it another go, could affect other candidates’ ability to woo donors, who could theoretically sit on the sidelines, waiting for the 2012 presidential nominee to jump take the plunge.

Robert O’Brien, a former senior adviser to Romney’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, said major contributors from around the country have told him Romney is still their first choice in 2016 – despite his repeated statements that it's time for a new party standard bearer.

“I believe that many contributors will hold out as long as possible hoping that Mitt will reconsider and get into the race,” O’Brien told msnbc.

Judi Rhines, a co-founder of the New Hampshire-based Rath Group and bundler for Romney’s campaign in 2012, said she’d love to see the former governor run again, and would be thrilled to support him. Rhines added that she’s taking a wait-and-see-approach and she’s “not in a rush to get behind anyone else at this point.”

If potential donors do hold out, it would likely have the greatest impact on moderate Republicans who would be primed to assume the Mitt-like establishment role. That means former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Christie, said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. He said it could become a bigger problem for other candidates if donors continue to keep their wallets shut in early 2015. Every would-be 2016-er is eager to raise as much cash as soon as they can, and the longer donors wait on the sidelines, the more it hurts everyone.

Several major GOP donors declined to comment for this story. O'Connell speculates that donors may be staying mum because there’s so much dissatisfaction with the GOP field as it stands, pointing to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker re-election struggle, Christie’s so-called “Bridgegate” scandal, and Sen. Marco Rubio coming under fire from the far right for endorsing a bipartisan proposal on immigration reform that the many in the party felt was far too lenient.

“They are sick and tired of losing presidential election and they’ll do anything they can to find that one candidate to win … they haven’t figured out who that one person is," he said.

Other Romney bundlers, like Andrew Wheeler, said that while he’d welcome Romney’s entry into the race in 2016, it’s simply too early for him to get involved. “I’m not holding out for anyone," he added.

Romney has repeatedly said he won’t make another bid for the Oval Office, but seemed to leave a little wiggle room earlier this week, telling conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt “circumstances can change.”

Hewitt replied, “I just want to confirm you’re telling me that we’ve got a chance there.” Romney joked it was “one of a million” but that he would run if he believed he would be the candidate “best positioned to beat Hillary Clinton.”

Adding fuel to the 2016 buzz has been his former running mate Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who told CBS News “I should wish he would” run again. Romney’s friend, Utah Republican Rep Jason Chaffetz, has also stirred the pot, saying earlier this summer he believes Romney will run again and will win.

Another Romney bundler, Brian Ballard, who sat on Romney’s national finance committee in 2012, says the former governor could be the GOP nominee in a “heartbeat.” But donors are on hold until after the midterms. Prominent GOP fundraiser and powerbroker Fred Malek agreed, saying, “No donors are focused on aligning with candidates for 2016. We’re focused on 2014.”

Romney, of course, was soundly rejected by voters in his own party during his first bid for the nomination in 2008. He dropped out barely a month after losing the Iowa caucuses that year to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. 

During his second bid, in 2012, Romney just barely escaped an almost implausibly weak Republican field. And by the time he’d made it to the general election, Romney seemed intent on reinforcing the party’s image of representing the wealthy, white electorate at the expense of everyone else. President Obama ended up crushing Romney among Hispanic voters 71% to 27%, African-Americans 93% to 6% and women 55% to 44%.

Some, like conservative strategist Keith Appell, who has previously consulted for the Republican National Committee, said candidates only get so many chances.

“It’s a really difficult proposition [for Romney], thinking that the American people are going to realize ‘we were so wrong. You were right the entire time.’ That’s just not going to happen,” Appell recently told msnbc. “People are looking for someone new. The case he made wasn’t good enough.”