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July 22nd, 2017

Insight

Mitt Romney, the new GOP hope

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published Sept. 15, 2014

Mitt Romney, the new GOP hope

Richard Nixon lost the presidency in 1960, was pilloried in his own party for losing to so inexperienced an opponent as John F. Kennedy and eight years later was elected to the White House. Ronald Reagan tried twice, in 1968 and 1976, and didn't win the Republican nomination until 1980, when he was elected president.

If you and I know that, then surely Mitt Romney does, too — and there are growing signs that Mr. Romney, fortified by the conviction that he was right more often than he was wrong in his campaign against a president who now suffers from plunging public support, may be looking at a third presidential race as well.

This is not merely musings for a September morning. Nationally regarded Republican political operatives — among the party's shrewdest and most experienced analysts, mostly of the breed who recoil at the thought of Rand Paul of Kentucky or Ted Cruz of Texas heading the GOP ticket — are talking privately of the appeal Mr. Romney might have in 2016.

Of course all the planets would have to align perfectly, but that is true of any presidential run; most White House campaigns are failures. Still, if Mr. Obama continues to record poor poll results — and if increasing numbers of Americans remind the former Massachusetts governor that he was right about Russia and the economy, if the Republican insurgents look as though they will split the primary vote, and if former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida does not mount a campaign of his own, then Mr. Romney could emerge as a powerful contender.

A Romney campaign would be all the more formidable in the unlikely event that former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton does not run for president. A Republican veteran of nine presidential campaigns told me, in reference to the retiring governor of Maryland, a Democrat: "Mitt Romney versus Martin O'Malley wouldn't be close."

The potential Romney surge — actually, more of a stealth operation — would be fueled by his involvement in midterm congressional and gubernatorial contests this autumn. Several top Republican operatives say GOP officials may supply Mr. Romney — one of the most-requested surrogate campaigners in the country — with a plane to campaign for Republican candidates.

"He could fill the day four times over with legitimate requests for his time," says Ron Kaufman, a former Republican National Committee budget chairman and a White House official in the first Bush years.

That sort of political scut work has paid dividends before. Mr. Nixon was considered politically dead after losing the White House in 1960 and then being defeated in the California gubernatorial race two years later. It was after that loss to Edmund G. Brown Sr. that the former vice president, in his you-won't-have-Nixon-to-kick-around-anymore remarks, declared that he had given his last press conference and would be withdrawing from politics.

By 1966, Mr. Nixon was perhaps the most prominent Republican surrogate campaigner in American political history. "1966 is very important in understanding Nixon's re-emergence because it was an off-year congressional campaign period where the spotlight was really on Mr. Nixon," recalled Dwight Chapin, a veteran Nixon hand who became White House appointments secretary, in an oral-history interview for the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. "He took full advantage of it. He earned a lot of chits with the various congressional candidates."

With Mr. Nixon's help, the Republicans gained 47 seats in the House and three in the Senate — a major blow to President Lyndon B. Johnson. The president was so angered by the Nixon offensive that, according to Mr. Chapin, he referred to Mr. Nixon as "a chronic campaigner."

Mr. Nixon was an avid student of American politics and understood that his 1960 loss was in part a reflection of the overall weakness of his party — a weakness that only grew after Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona lost the 1964 election in a landslide.

"So we had to increase the number of governors. We had to increase the number of senators, increase the number of congressmen," Mr. Nixon said in recorded 1983 interviews with former aide Frank Gannon and available through the University of Georgia, adding: "And that's exactly what we accomplished in that 1966 campaign. In that campaign, I was pretty perceptive. I must say I didn't have any polls to base this on. I just sensed this as I campaigned around the country."

The result, according to Mr. Nixon: "So that gave the party the new life. It created a new plateau for the [presidential] candidate to pole-vault from in order to win in 1968."

The 2016 race is shaping up to be considerably different from the 1968 race, in which Mr. Nixon's only real party rival was Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, though Mr. Romney's father appeared for a time to be a strong candidate and Gov. Reagan of California mounted a spirited though intermittent campaign. The next presidential race may include a number of Republican contenders, including Jeb Bush, who as a member of the Republican establishment occupies much the same profile in a potential race as Mr. Romney.

One Republican operative described the pressure on Mr. Romney from GOP strategists, activists and donors as a "drumbeat." A top Romney donor said the former governor's family is "very supportive" of another campaign, though those close to Mr. Romney are virtually unanimous in their view that he will not enter the 2016 race if Mr. Bush does.

Three months ago, the Granite State Poll conducted for WMUR-TV by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center found that nearly 40 percent of likely Republican voters in the state's first-in-the-nation primary would side with Mr. Romney if he ran, pushing all the other potential candidates to support levels beneath 10 percent.

Every presidential race has its own contours and rhythms, and Mr. Nixon's 1966 gambit hasn't been repeated on that scale by any candidate in nearly a half century, with one signal exception: Ronald Reagan. The only political figure in a position to repeat it this time around is Mr. Romney. The key to the 2016 race may be whether he chooses to do so.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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