WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — Mitt Romney will not be running for president for a third time.

The 2012 Republican presidential nominee decided against running in 2016, saying it’s time to give other party leaders an opportunity.

“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,” he told staff during a conference call Friday morning.

“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,” Romney said.

He continued: “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.”

Romney said he will do whatever he can to put a Republican back in the White House.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Romney believes that a lesser-known Republican challenger might have a better shot of defeating the Democratic nominee.

“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,” he said.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a potential Republican presidential candidate, called Romney a “patriot” following the announcement.

“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,” Bush said in a statement.

A recent CBS News poll found that 59 percent of Republicans nationwide wanted to see Romney run for president again.

YOUR (POTENTIAL) 2016 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES

The former governor of Massachusetts had jumped back into the presidential discussion on Jan. 10, when he surprised a small group of former donors at a meeting in New York by telling them he was eyeing a third run for the White House.

It was a monumental change for Romney, who since losing the 2012 election to President Barack Obama had repeatedly told all who asked that his career in politics was over and that he would not again run for president.

In the days since that meeting in New York, which caught several in attendance off-guard, Romney made calls to former fundraisers, staff and supporters, and gave three public speeches in which he outlined his potential vision for another campaign.

“I’m thinking about how I can help the country,” he told hundreds of students Wednesday night at Mississippi State University.

In that speech, and what amounted to a campaign stop a few hours before at a barbeque restaurant with Mississippi State’s football coach Dan Mullen in tow, Romney sounded every bit like a politician preparing to run for president.

“We need to restore opportunity, particularly for the middle class,” Romney said. “You deserve a job that can repay all you’ve spent and borrowed to go to college.”

But as Romney sounded out his former team about putting together a new national campaign, he discovered that several of his past fundraisers had already made plans for 2016 and were committed to supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Several key former Romney donors told The Associated Press this week that in Bush they see someone who can successfully serve as president, as they believe Romney could. But they also think Bush has the personality and senior staff needed to win the White House, something the former Massachusetts governor could not bring together in his two previous presidential campaigns.

“I’ve got great respect for Gov. Romney, and I busted my buns for him,” said Chicago investor Craig Duchossois, whose wife contributed $250,000 to a pro-Romney super PAC while he collected tens of thousands more for Romney’s last campaign. “But I have turned the page.”

Romney also lost one of his most trusted political advisers on Thursday when David Kochel joined Bush’s team. Kochel, who led Romney’s campaign in Iowa in 2008 and 2012, is in now line to play a senior role in Bush’s campaign should he run.

Romney’s inner circle was surprised to lose Kochel, whom a Bush spokesman called one of “the most respected strategists” in the country.

The exit of Romney from the campaign most immediately benefits the other favorites of the party’s establishment wing, including Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The more conservative side of the field is largely unchanged, with a group of candidates that will likely include Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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