By Philip Elliott
January 2, 2019

Don’t start printing “Mitt 2020” tote bags just yet.

Mitt Romney, the two-time White House hopeful who will be seated Thursday as Utah’s junior Senator, sparked conversation late Tuesday with a Washington Post column that savaged President Donald Trump’s character, claiming he “has not risen to the mantle of the office.” The brutal rebuke of a fellow Republican immediately started the Washington class speculating about Romney’s next moves, including a possible third race for the White House in a primary against Trump.

The flurry of activity reignited members of Romney’s sophisticated political network, which has been built over decades. Potential donors were lighting up the phone lines inquiring about a campaign that does not yet exist. Eager activists wanted to know whether they could start opening offices in Des Moines and Manchester. The old gang, now scattered to consulting firms and corporate suites, wondered if there might be another campaign in the offing.

“I think it’s important as you begin a new job to describe exactly what you hope to accomplish,” Romney told CNN’s Jake Tapper. Asked directly if he were laying the groundwork for his own 2020 campaign, Romney said he was not. “You may have heard, I ran before,” Romney said with laughter. “I’ve had that experience. By the way, I acknowledge that the President was successful and I was not. He did something I couldn’t do: he won.”

From inside the Romney orbit — an ever-growing collections of advisers, relatives and aides dating back to his unsuccessful Senate race against Edward M. Kennedy in 1994 — the message was a typically cautious “slow down.” After all, the former Massachusetts governor hasn’t even taken his Senate seat yet. Still, the op-ed didn’t come out of the blue, and very little in Romney’s political life happens by chance or gut. This was, as many argued, a trial balloon to gauge a reaction.

Romney World is a place where such fantasy and optimism can take on lives of their own. Romney remains a hyper-competitive politician and, at age 71, shows no sign of checking his ambitions. A technocrat at heart, Romney from the outside sees dozens of ways to improve on the chaos that Trump creates around himself. Those close to Romney say he is a natural problem solver, whether it is Cabinet organization or the mundane question of how to get a pet Irish setter to a family vacation. For Romney, the answer is obvious to anyone willing to see it.

Much of the buzz around Romney for President 3.0 is grounded in antipathy toward Trump, for sure. But there are practical questions at play, too. If Trump’s polling numbers continue to deflate — and stand the threaten the GOP’s majority in the Senate in 2020 — then party leaders may be willing to break the glass on an emergency change of direction. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as canny as any strategist in his Republican Party, is already looking at the 2020 map and readying plans to defend incumbent Republicans who are in potential peril in Colorado, Iowa and Maine. At the same time, Democrats are cautiously optimistic that they may recruit super-star candidates in Democratic-trending like North Carolina, Georgia and Arizona. In all, Republicans will be defending 22 seats, compared to Democrats’ 12 and the two independents who caucus with the Democrats.

Then, there is a dreaded final report potentially looming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller. While impeachment and removal from office are long shots, some Republicans muse that there’s no telling what — if anything — Mueller will report about potential wrongdoing inside the Trump orbit. At least 33 people and three companies have been charged so far. Seven have pleaded guilty. There is a sense, at least in some corners of the Republican Party, that the Mueller probe is a ticking time bomb, and the party should at least consider a Plan B in case it blows up.

But there are reasons aplenty to be skeptical of another Romney run. Even his strongest supporters acknowledge the steep hill Romney would have to climb to deny Trump the nomination in 2020. For one, Trump has a stranglehold over the Republican National Committee, which alone controls the nominating rules and is run by Romney’s niece and Trump loyalist Ronna Romney McDaniel. For another, Trump fares just fine with his party’s base. In Iowa, for instance, he enjoys an eye-popping 81 percent job approval rating in that lead-off state, according to a December Des Moines Register/CNN poll. A Gallup poll puts his approval rating among Republicans nationwide at 88 percent.

An historical footnote was making its way among donors on Thursday: no first-term President who faced a real primary challenge in recent memory has gone on to win a second. George H.W. Bush faced a primary from Pat Buchanan in 1992, Jimmy Carter faced a challenge from Kennedy in 1980, Gerald Ford fended off a challenge from Ronald Reagan in 1976. Trump loyalists argue that if rivals back Romney, they will be setting the stage for a Democrat to win the White House in 2020.

Then, there’s the complicated question about Romney himself. The former business mogul twice before has sought the presidency. In 2008, he came up short to Sen. John McCain in the race for the GOP nomination, even after twisting himself into knots in pursuit of evangelical support. Then, in 2012, he captured the nomination but was out-gunned by Barack Obama in a race that pushed Romney further and further to the right in an attempt to out-flank tea party favorites like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. Worried about his prospects in 2012, Romney memorably walked into Trump’s casino on the Las Vegas Strip for an uncomfortable endorsement from the nation’s most prominent proponent of the discredited claim that Obama was not really born in Hawaii.

“There are some things that you just can’t imagine happening in your life. This is one of them,” Romney said back in 2012.

Yet, Romney has been in this space before. In March of 2016, Romney took the lectern at the University of Utah and held forth for 20 minutes about how Republicans had to do everything in their power to derail a Trump nomination. Romney had long-simmering reservations of Trump and, after Trump declined to disavow former Klansman David Duke’s endorsement, decided to lay them out in one speech. Romney encouraged voters to coalesce around the strongest candidate in the remaining primary states to deny Trump the nomination. It was an unprecedented move, but had little impact.

Still, after Trump won the election, Romney awkwardly auditioned to become the Secretary of State, only to be rejected. Romney accepted Trump’s endorsement in his 2018 Senate race. In doing so, Romney fed fresh fodder to his critics, who say he is a serial flip-flopper who will do anything to win.

Then, came the op-ed. It left little doubt just what Romney thinks of Trump and seemed to open the door for him to lead GOP resistance to his agenda. He seemed primed to step into the role of chief check on Trump from Capitol Hill, a role held at various times and with varying consistency by leaders such as Bob Corker, Jeff Flake and John McCain. Corker and Flake both retired rather than embrace Trump’s brand of politics, and McCain died after a brutal battle with brain cancer. Unlike that trio of rabble-rousers, Romney is seen as a more durable match for his state; Romney won his race last year with 63% of the vote and his deep personal wealth means he doesn’t have to kowtow to fickle donors.

The question now is whether Romney will be able to sustain the criticism and handle the returned barbs. Already, Romney’s niece and RNC chairwoman called her uncle’s comments “disappointing and unproductive.” Trump noted the electoral tallies: “I won big, and he didn’t.” RNC member Jevon O. Williams called the column “calculated political treachery” in an email to fellow party insiders. It’s a risk to take aim at the king if you’re not going to send him into exile.

Romney isn’t one to play petty, but he also has a thin skin at times. The private Romney is confident in his abilities and motivations and struggles to understand why others see him so differently. The public Romney is a figure prone to caution and strategy, instincts that may prove scant durability should the spat escalate into a full-bore feud that comes to engulf the entire Senate caucus. Even before he starts his job, Romney once again reminded Washington why he’s worth watching.

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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