WASHINGTON - Despite rising speculation that Mitt Romney will take another shot at the White House, those with the most knowledge of his political ambitions - the top staff who ran his 2012 presidential campaign - say it's not in the cards.
Onetime aides to the former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential nominee are gathering in Washington Tuesday for a fundraiser for Virginia congressional candidate Barbara Comstock, that is doubling as a reunion. Comstock was a policy adviser during Romney's 2008 campaign and a volunteer in 2012.
Former staff is so confident that there will be no third Romney bid that they are already seeking out roles on potential other campaigns for the 2016 election cycle, though they say they understand the recent surge of interest in a potential Romney bid.
"Until somebody emerges who seems like a much better option, there is going to continue to be speculation," said Katie Packer Gage, Romney's former deputy campaign manager, who is listed as a host of the "Romney-Ryan reunion."
"We haven't seen anybody we can get more excited about," Gage continued. "I take him at his word that he doesn't have any intention to run."
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Former spokesman Kevin Madden, another host, said Romney hasn't left much room for interpretation: "While many genuinely think the governor was the right person to be leading the country right now, he has made it clear, repeatedly, he isn't running."
Romney has repeatedly denied interest in a third presidential bid, even as polls show him as one of the nation's most popular Republicans. He laid low for much of 2013, but began to hit the political circuit again this year, largely to benefit GOP candidates running for Congress in the midterms. Advisers say he'll be especially active on the campaign circuit in late September and early October to back those candidates, even in states where he lost in 2012.
In a "Fox News Sunday" interview this weekend, Romney said once again that, "I'm not running. I'm not planning on running."
"I'm going to be helping the person who takes the banner for us."
But when asked whether he would be better at the job than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is the most popular potential Democratic candidate, Romney said there's "no question about that in my mind."
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, Romney's 2012 running mate, is also expected to attend the fundraiser Thursday. Other attendees include Romney's former campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, political director Rich Beeson, finance director Spencer Zwick, and senior advisers Stuart Stevens, Beth Myers, Peter Flaherty and Ron Kaufman, according to an invitation obtained by The Associated Press.
"He believes in his heart he'd be a good president, but he also believes he had his chance and it's someone else's turn," Kaufman said.
A CNN poll released late last month showed Romney leading among Iowa Republicans by a substantial margin over a list of candidates that includes former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ryan. Romney has also led early polls in New Hampshire, which follows Iowa as the second contest in the GOP presidential primary process.
Gage says Romney's team will always be intensely loyal, even if they don't believe he will run again.
"The mood in that group is that if he does decide to do it, none of us are any less committed to him now than we were three, four, five years ago," she said. "But at this point in time I don't think he has any designs on this."
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