Romney's 2012 Hill Allies Aren't Promising 2016 Support

If he wants support from his former supporters in Congress, the 2012 nominee will have to win them back all over again.

Mitt Romney is trying to reassemble his presidential campaign apparatus, meeting with former advisers and letting donors know he's prepared to try again—but the fact that he's eyeing a 2016 run doesn't mean his 2012 congressional allies are promising to come along for the ride.

"Mitt is a great guy. He served his country well and would be a great president, but let's wait and see how this shakes out," says Sen. James Risch of Idaho, who served as an early backer of Romney's in both 2008 and 2012. "Every race is different, the dynamics are different, the landscape is different, so you never know."

Complicating Romney's bid for support this time around: a deep field of primary alternatives and a reluctance—even among former supporters—to give another try to a candidate who lost the last time around. There is a sense among Republican lawmakers that Romney would have to come to his next presidential bid with a fresh vision and rationale for his candidacy.

"He has got to make the case that the third time's the charm. We'll see," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who waited to endorse Romney until after he won the primary race in 2012.

In the last cycle, Romney fought to overcome his reputation as a Massachusetts moderate. He struggled to excite the Republican base in states like Iowa and South Carolina as he sought to campaign against Obamacare, a law which resembles the health care overhaul he oversaw as governor.

"He struggled appealing to working Americans last time," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, noting that Romney's conservative appeal was an area ripe for improvement. "I think he could do better with that."

If Mitt Romney actually runs in 2016 and emerges as the nominee against a host of other potential candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul, Republican senators said they would support him just as they did when he ran in 2012. But many noted that the dynamics of this election cycle will be far more unpredictable than when Romney ran as one of the only establishment picks in 2012.

Senators said that while Romney no doubt still has some of the strongest ties to strategists and is a formidable fundraiser, he will likely be going up against a new enemy: the Bush family—a force in establishment circles that knows its way around New Hampshire and Iowa.

"You have to win it on the battlefield," Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama said about the Bush-Romney matchup.

GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said Romney would be a very strong contender, "as would Jeb Bush."

"I am close to the Bush family," Collins said. "We are blessed with a lot of capable candidates, and I am going to leave it at that."

Sen. John McCain, a former Republican presidential nominee himself, said he wasn't surprised Romney was considering another go at it. Romney, after all, would not be the first candidate to seek the White House three times. Ronald Reagan and Republican Sen. Bob Dole both campaigned three times, but neither one of them won their nomination until the third attempt. That puts Romney in a place to make history if he were to run and win the Republican nomination for a second time in 2016.

"Republicans, we are a conservative party and we have a way of getting used to people," said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. "It is not unusual in our party for someone to be pretty well known before the Republicans get comfortable with him."

Romney's strength, many said, is that while he may have lost in 2012, many voters who were on the fence and cast their ballots for President Obama may be experiencing "buyer's remorse" today with the Democratic Party. Placing Romney back in front of them may give the Republicans an opportunity to let voters go back in time.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who was one of Romney's earliest supporters in the 2012 cycle, said "nothing would make him happier" than Romney's entrance into the presidential race. "His being willing to stick his neck out again is a sign of a really good person who wants to serve his country," Hatch said. "I will be for whoever is chosen, but Mitt and I are very close friends."

Hatch did offer one critique of Romney's showing in 2012: "It really hurt him to go through all of those debates, not because he didn't handle them well, but because he got pushed and shoved, and wasn't really able to be himself."

Overall, however, most agreed that it is too early to be making picks: "Anyone who tells you today that they know who is going to be the strongest, don't believe anything else they say because you have a lot of people," said GOP Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma. "When I get a question like that, I always think of the 12 Republicans lined up for that first debate."