Here's How Mitt Romney Could Become a Contender in 2016

After two failed presidential campaigns, could the third time be the charm?

While the "will he or won't he" chatter of a third Mitt Romney presidential run balloons, the former Massachusetts governor and two-time candidate may be priming himself for a rare opportunity to get back in the game. And, at least according to some people close to the former candidate, that could come in a highly unusual way.

Though no Republicans have yet announced their candidacies, the field of potentials is already crowded. And aside from a few exceptions—former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee among them—the possible 2016ers would be running on the national stage for the first time.

The GOP's election veteran hasn't completely ruled out running again. Last month, Romney told The New York Times Magazine, "We'll see what happens." Taken alone, that's not much to draw conclusions on. The ambivalence is a decidedly altered position, though, from his rhetoric since 2012, which can be summed up as a resolute "Never again." Even as late as August, he told a crowd in Chicago that he was definitely not running.

It helps that Romney hasn't faded quietly into political history. A household name for better or worse, he's gone on the Sunday shows and stumped for fellow Republicans. In the last two years, as he's hosted policy conferences and raised money for vulnerable Republicans, his hold on a significant slice of the GOP establishment has not eased up. If the 2012 election had been held in July of this year, according to a CNN/ORC poll, Romney would have beat President Obama handily, 53 percent to 44 percent.

"Every day, wherever he goes, morning, noon, or night, people stop him, call him, beg him, scream at him, 'Please run,' " Ron Kaufman, a former senior adviser to Romney, told National Journal. "An awful lot of people in this country feel that Mitt Romney would be the best person to be president."

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and the chance to beat Obama won't ever come again. But under a special set of circumstances, Romney's closest advisers see a window—albeit a small one—for the onetime GOP nominee to get in the race.

"I think he wants to be in a position where if everyone else implodes, he's the one that party leaders call to save the day," one former Romney adviser told National Journal.

For a man who guessed he'd be branded a "loser for life," an eager jump into the fray could be embarrassing. If he was courted, though, the ambitious politician could be swayed by a call to fulfill his patriotic duty.

At the Chicago event, Romney said there were "other good people in the party" thinking about running, and he told CBS's Bob Schieffer earlier this year that he'd be "supporting one of them very vigorously." He's had his turn, he's said, and should step aside for the new crop of GOP leaders. But if the field collapses, the Republican establishment could find him waiting in the wings.

"Could he be drafted? Could everyone from the party come and say, 'You have to run because you're the only person'? Is that possible? Sure," Kaufman said.

But the odds of this playing out are still extremely slim. Kaufman, who doubts Romney would wind up in such a position, points out that the last person to be grudgingly enlisted into a presidential campaign was Dwight Eisenhower. Unlike Romney, Eisenhower had never run for president before, and boasted a better track record for victory: He had recently helped win World War II as supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe.

In other words, Romney swooping in to save a fractured party at the 2016 GOP nominating convention is not likely. But his supporters at least think that as an establishment favorite, Romney could play the hero if party upstarts and likely candidates Ted Cruz and Rand Paul crash and burn.

It all may hinge on whether another candidate who's popular with the establishment, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, joins the field. In that case, Romney's unique position could be rendered null, closing his window. But the scattered clammering for a Romney candidacy could last all the way through the convention.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Rick Santorum. He's the former senator from Pennsylvania.