Mitt Romney says publicly he's not considering another presidential campaign, most recently on Sunday during an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press." But many of his loyalists expect one and remain at the ready for 2012.
When dozens of former Romney aides and advisers convened on the terrace of Charlie Spies' fashionable Penn Quarter loft earlier this year on a warm February night, the purpose was ostensibly to help raise money for the Virginia state House race of Romney strategist Barbara Comstock.
But Spies, formerly the Romney campaign's CFO, wasn't just hosting a $100 per-head fundraiser. He was also staging a Romney political family reunion, as advertised by his email invitation subject line, "The Romney gang back together," and the special $50 cut-rate fee for former campaign staffers meant to draw some of the junior aides.
The buzz that night was unmistakable among the 80 or so former Romney operatives present.
"He was tanned, rested and ready," said one former campaign aide of his old boss.
For the Romney team, it's not too much of a stretch to say that the campaign never really ended.
In addition to the full-time employees the former Massachusetts governor has at his Boston-based Free & Strong America PAC, the early primary states and Washington are filled with former staffers and supporters who are in regular contact with one another.
Whenever Romney has a major TV appearance or pens an opinion piece, a PAC staffer, Will Ritter, circulates the news to an email list of the former governor's extended political family.
The Washington-based alumni have a regular monthly luncheon, are working on another reunion-like event around a 2009 candidate later this year and always make sure their former candidate is briefed on the latest political doings.
When Romney does a high-profile Sunday show like he did yesterday, for example, that means that former communications aides such as Matt Rhoades and Kevin Madden will join PAC spokesman and longtime adviser Eric Fehrnstrom to help prepare their old boss, either in person or over the phone. When he's delivering a speech, as he did earlier this month on national security, other former campaign officials such as media consultants Russ Schriefer and Stuart Stevens are brought in.
And when the former governor is in Washington for reasons other than a public appearance, an even broader extended network of advisers is often alerted, including such figures as longtime lobbyist and GOP strategist Ron Kaufman.
Romney enjoys an equally strong following in many of the early primary states.
"I'm going be a Mitt guy until he tells me he's not running for president," said Jim Merrill, who ran Romney's New Hampshire primary campaign and said he still gets excited emails from local activists every time the former governor is on TV.
Merrill and Rich Killion, another New Hampshire GOP strategist, are driving down to Boston together this week to be with the governor when his official portrait is hung in the statehouse.
For a primary campaign that ended in defeat, it's remarkable how much the Romney team has hung together. Aside from the more-formal communications, it's not unusual to run into groups of them socializing with one another at a Capitol Hill watering hole.
The ongoing coordination and alliances serve as perhaps the best reminder that, unlike any of his potential rivals, Romney has a turn-key political apparatus in place and ready for deployment should he decide to run again.
"Having run before for president puts you in a better place to run to run again," said Terry Nelson, a top GOP strategist and for a time John McCain's 2008 campaign manager. "He doesn't have to build an infrastructure or recruit a a national fundraising team."
Romney may also benefit from the Republican tradition of plitical primogeniture - the rewarding of the presidential nomination to those who've won a place at the head of the line by having run once already.
But GOP observers say that Romney's stock is rising for two other important reasons -the political climate and his own deft moves since losing the nomination.
After the national security-dominated Bush years, the recession has brought the importance of economic issues into sharp focus.
Following a primary spent trying to navigate the politics of Iraq and a vigorous--and sometimes cringe-inducing--courtship of social conservatives, the issue matrix now favors Romney's background as a turnaround specialist.
It's not just the economy in general where Romney finds himself working from a position of strength, but more specifically on issues like health care and the auto industry where Romney can voice informed opposition to President Obama in a way few others in his party are equipped to.
One well-known Republican consultant said such serious and careful opposition offered Romney the best path: "I don't think he needs to be quite so eager to kiss every ass in the base, but concentrate almost exclusively on an economic message."
And while other potential 2012 contenders in the party are falling by the wayside because of adultery, Romney loyalists say the father of five's straight arrow ways suddenly look even more appealing.
"We know everything about the guy," said one former Romney campaign official. "The good, the bad and the ugly. And it ain't that ugly."
Romney is also creating his own good luck.
He carefully picks his spots where he wants to speak out, and then does so in a serious and high-profile fashion such as an op-ed on auto restructuring in the New York Times or a piece on health care in Newsweek.
"We try to shy away from just commenting on headlines of day," said Fehrnstrom, a reference perhaps to some of Romney's more loquacious future rivals.
Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman, saw Romney speak earlier this month at a Virginia GOP fundraiser and came away impressed.
"You could have heard a pin drop," said Gillespie. "And his critique of President Obama was very thoughtful and principled. It was not harsh."
At a time when Republicans are seeking the right balance in taking on the popular president, Romney's approach is effective, Gillespie said.
"Part of being a leader in the party is showing people how to talk about these issues, how to effectively challenge the other side," he said.
Romney's early moves have paid off in the polls. His favorability rating has grown by 10 points and his unfavorables have plummeted 16 points since he dropped out of the primary in February 2008, according to a Pew poll released last week.
"He's obviously the frontrunner," said Mark Salter, a former top aide to John McCain who launched some tough attacks on Romney during the primary.
It's a sentiment echoed privately by many senior Republicans who see an already-thin 2012 bench getting thinner with the sins of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Nevada Sen. John Ensign, the departure of Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to China and the sense that other would-be rivals either won't run or have become damaged goods.
Of course, Romney had the same loyal, gold-plated organization in 2008 as he has in waiting now and he couldn't make the sale to the GOP's primary voters.
Because of that weak performance, Romney isn't the indisputable heir apparent.
"He was never the clearly-defined second place candidate like McCain in 2000," said Nelson.
And Romney was harmed not only by his shift to the right, but by the perception it helped to foster--that he was something less than authentic.
Romney's backers say he'l be himself, the can-do former CEO, should he run again.
"Mitt will have a true north on this campaign: the guy who can fix the economy," said a former strategist from the '08 race. "It will bite him again if he tries to be all things to all people."
So will he run again?
The official line is that he's now focused on a book (a treatise on the country's present and future challenges and is due to the publisher at the end of July), helping Republicans get elected (he's already made stops in the two states with off-year governor's races in 2009 and is heading to California this week to campaign with his former colleague and adviser Meg Whitman, who's running for governor in 2010), and spending time with his family.
One potential obstacle doesn't seem to be at issue anymore: Fehrnstrom said Romney's wife, Ann, is in good health and cancer-free after having a pre-cancerous growth removed last December.
The consensus among those close to Romney is that his oft-stated mantra about "not closing the door" on a run is about right - he's watching Obama closely and would be inclined to get in if it seemed like he had a realistic path to victory.
If and when he does, he'll have a team ready to follow.
"There is a nucleus of people who, should he decide to run, will drop everything and go help him again," said Madden.
By Jonathan Martin