BOSTON -- Twice in his political life, Mitt Romney has managed to turn disappointing defeats into new windows of opportunity.
After losing to Ted Kennedy in the 1994 Massachusetts Senate race, Romney parlayed his first taste of the political limelight into a job leading the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Olympics -- a prominent position he used to boost his national profile and his reputation as a turnaround specialist.
That experience overseeing the Winter Games was also instrumental in Romney's successful 2002 run for Massachusetts governor -- an office he used as a platform to launch his first presidential bid.
When his run for the 2008 Republican nomination ended after a string of Super Tuesday defeats to eventual nominee John McCain, Romney set to work immediately to regroup. He slowly rebuilt his stature within the GOP establishment and launched himself to the 2012 nomination.
After his defeat to Tuesday night, Romney finds himself again forced to swallow a bitter disappointment. This time, however, his next step is as uncertain as it has been at any point in his adult life.
At 65, Romney is in outstanding physical shape, and while he has often been outmaneuvered in his political campaigns, no one has ever accused him of being outworked. But as the failed nominee in a race that most Republicans had expected to win, Romney's path has hit a brick wall.
With several rising GOP stars already showing signs of preparing possible White House runs in 2016, Romney's presidential aspirations are almost certainly extinguished forever. And he may be little more than a fading memory rather than a potent force within the Republican Party's power structure when the next Republican National Convention rolls around.
In each of his political campaigns, Romney has stressed his background as a successful businessman, often noting, "I have not spent my life in politics." As such, he may be tempted to return to the private sector.
But Romney also has been steeped in the American political system since he was 15 years old, when his father, George, first ran for governor of Michigan. It may prove difficult for him to leave all of that behind entirely.
Now that his own political hopes have been snuffed, many of the people closest to Romney say they have no idea what he'll do next. Senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, who has been by Romney's side for over a decade, said he hadn't given much thought to what the former governor's next move will be.
"I think he wants to spend a lot of time with his grandkids," Fehrnstrom said shortly after Romney concluded his brief concession speech here. "There was one point in the night when the results were still coming in, and he turned off the TV to play with his grandkids."
In his speech, Romney gave no indication of where his life might head next.
As a sea of disappointed supporters digested the results here at Romney campaign headquarters, the only consensus about the nominee's future was that no one would hazard more than a guess about what it might entail.
One longtime aide who traveled frequently with Romney during the campaign predicted that he might work with some of his sons in their various business ventures, participate in nonprofit causes, or write a book related to his experiences touring America on the campaign trail.
"He hasn't kept a diary per se, but he's always taken notes," the aide said. "On the plane, at least, it's always seemed like he's very reflective of what he's been doing."
As votes were still being counted in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, prominent voices within the GOP were already initiating the inevitable soul-searching that will define at least the next few months within a party that suffered resounding defeats Tuesday, including in just about every close Senate race.
Many will argue that the party's first task is to find a way to appeal to the women, Latinos, and younger voters who flocked to Obama and created a demographic nightmare for Romney.
There will also be no shortage of voices within the Tea Party-aligned wing of the party who will argue that that Romney's biggest mistake was in moderating his message and not holding firm to conservative principles.
Whether Romney himself will have much say in that self-analysis is an open question.
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