Mitt Romney is out.
The two-time presidential candidate and 2012 GOP nominee told supporters and would-be donors Friday morning he will not make a third attempt at The White House, after all.
“I believe that one of our next generation of Republican leaders, one who may not be as well known as I am today, one who has not yet taken their message across the country, one who is just getting started, may well emerge as being better able to defeat the Democrat nominee. In fact, I expect and hope that to be the case,” Romney said in a statement he read to supporters in conference calls at 10:45 and 11 a.m.
Romney told the supporters he was convinced “that with the help of the people on this call, we could win the nomination.” But sources told the New Hampshire Journal he also believed that his presence in the race would have ultimately made it easier for Democrat Hillary Clinton to win the presidency.
“He believes that the primary process would be long and bloody and divisive and he thinks at the end of the day, that will make it easier for (Clinton) to win, and that is what he does not want to see,” an aide said.
“You can’t imagine how hard it is for Ann and me to step aside,” Romney said in his statement to backers, “especially knowing of your support and the support of so many people across the country. But we believe it is for the best of the party and the nation.”
Romney’s exit leaves a packed Republican field with no clear frontrunner. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are viewed as the leaders of the so-called “establishment” column of the GOP field at this point, but Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will also benefit from the decision.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who was highly critical of Romney’s consideration of a third run, is viewed, in New Hampshire at least, as the most organized among the conservatives. But poll after poll has shown that without Romney, the contest for the GOP nomination begins wide open.
Romney easily won the New Hampshire primary in 2012 after losing to John McCain in 2008. His supporters believe he would have won it again in 2016.
But that is now a moot point.
Earlier this week, Romney took aim at Clinton in a speech to students at Mississippi State University. Sounding very much like a presidential candidate with a general election message, Romney said she was “clueless” on foreign policy and uninformed on where jobs come from.
A signal of Romney’s decision came on Thursday when David Kochel, an Iowa GOP strategist who worked on both of Romney’s presidential campaigns, joined Bush’s political action committee as a senior strategist and is reportedly in line to be Bush’s national campaign manager.
In New Hampshire, the Bush team has already been reaching out to operatives to run the state operation. That effort is expected to be re-doubled now that Romney is not running, and it is expected that Romney’s supporters in the state will be on the receiving end of recruitment calls by Bush himself and his team.
Top state Romney supporter Jim Merrill called Romney “one of the most honorable and decent and patriotic men I’ve ever known. It has been a true privilege to have taken this journey with him for these eight years. I’m disappointed, but I understand entirely.” He called it a “selfless act by someone who cares deeply about this country.”
Merrill, who was the state director Romney’s 2008 campaign in New Hampshire and a senior adviser to his 2012 campaign, said the field is left with “a number of great talents,” but he also said there is no clear frontrunner.
“I think that had Mitt run, he would have been the nominee, but it would have been a very grueling difficult process as it was in 2012,” Merrill said.
While the rest of the GOP field is boosted by Romney’s exit, Merrill said there are four main beneficiaries – Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, “and I’d even put Carly Fiorina in that category.
“The Romney coalition, which is significant in New Hampshire, will take a long and close look at each one.”
Romney in his statement, encouraged his supporters to “feel free to sign up on a campaign for a person who you believe may become our best nominee.”
Bush, in a Facebook post, said, “There are few people who have worked harder to elect Republicans across the country than (Romney) has. Though I’m sure today’s decision was not easy, I know that Mitt Romney will never stop advocating for renewing America’s promise through upward mobility, encouraging free enterprise and strengthening our national defense. Mitt is a patriot and I join many in hoping his days of serving our nation and our party are not over. I look forward to working with him to ensure all Americans have a chance to rise up.”
On Twitter, Paul said, “My family & I wish Mitt & Ann the best. We have gotten to know them over the last few years & deeply respect their family & Mitt’s service.”
Here is Romney’s full statement, as delivered to his supporters Friday morning:
“Let me begin by letting you know who else is on this call, besides Ann and me. There are a large number of people who signed on to be leaders of our 2016 finance effort. In addition, state political leadership from several of the early primary states are on the line. And here in New York City, and on the phone, are people who have been helping me think through how to build a new team, as well as supporters from the past who have all been kind enough to volunteer their time during this deliberation stage. Welcome, and thank you. Your loyalty and friendship, and your desire to see the country with new, competent and conservative leadership warms my heart.
“After putting considerable thought into making another run for president, I’ve decided it is best to give other leaders in the Party the opportunity to become our next nominee.
“Let me give you some of my thinking. First, I am convinced that with the help of the people on this call, we could win the nomination. Our finance calls made it clear that we would have enough funding to be more than competitive. With few exceptions, our field political leadership is ready and enthusiastic about a new race. And the reaction of Republican voters across the country was both surprising and heartening. I know that early poll numbers move up and down a great deal during a campaign, but we would have no doubt started in a strong position. One poll out just today shows me gaining support and leading the next closest contender by nearly two to one. I also am leading in all of the four early states. So I am convinced that we could win the nomination, but fully realize it would have been difficult test and a hard fight.
“I also believe with the message of making the world safer, providing opportunity to every American regardless of the neighborhood they live in, and working to break the grip of poverty, I would have the best chance of beating the eventual Democrat nominee, but that is before the other contenders have had the opportunity to take their message to the voters.
“I believe that one of our next generation of Republican leaders, one who may not be as well known as I am today, one who has not yet taken their message across the country, one who is just getting started, may well emerge as being better able to defeat the Democrat nominee. In fact, I expect and hope that to be the case.
“I feel that it is critical that America elect a conservative leader to become our next president. You know that I have wanted to be that president. But I do not want to make it more difficult for someone else to emerge who may have a better chance of becoming that president. You can’t imagine how hard it is for Ann and me to step aside, especially knowing of your support and the support of so many people across the country. But we believe it is for the best of the Party and the nation.
“I’ve been asked, and will certainly be asked again if there are any circumstances whatsoever that might develop that could change my mind. That seems unlikely. Accordingly, I’m not organizing a PAC or taking donations; I’m not hiring a campaign team.
“I encourage all of you on this call to stay engaged in the critical process of selecting a Republican nominee for President. Please feel free to sign up on a campaign for a person who you believe may become our best nominee.
“I believe a Republican winning back the White House is essential for our country, and I will do whatever I can to make that happen.
“To all my supporters, friends and family who worked both tirelessly and loyally to support my campaigns in the past, I will always be deeply appreciative. What you have already done is a tribute to your patriotism. We are overwhelmed and humbled by your loyalty to us, by your generosity of spirit, and by your friendship. God bless you all.”