Mitt Romney hopes the third time’s the charm

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Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Former Governor Mitt Romney speaking at CPAC FL in Orlando, Florida.

Former Governor Mitt Romney speaking at CPAC FL in Orlando, Florida.

Former Governor Mitt Romney speaking at CPAC FL in Orlando, Florida.

Slate magazine said yesterday that it was “no surprise” when two-time presidential contender Mitt Romney told major donors on Friday that he is once again running for the nation’s highest office.

Color me stupid, but I for one was surprised. I did not see this coming.

Since his loss in 2012, Romney has declared again and again that he is not going to run for president. As recently as October, he told Bloomberg, “I’m not running, I’m not planning on running and I’ve got nothing new on that story.” A year ago he was actually into the double digits in his adamant refusals: “Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no,” he told the New York Times.

In some of these interviews, Romney seemed annoyed that people kept asking him the same question after his repeated denials. “I’ve actually answered that one a lot of times,” he complained in August.

And I, idiotically, took him at his word.

Maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part. Most of us who write about Mormonism were exhausted at the end of the so-called “Mormon Moment” in 2012, and we’ve no real desire to experience all of that again. (On the other hand, it’s possible that if Mitt does run in 2016, there would be no corresponding “Mormon moment.” Maybe America will have progressed beyond the candidate’s religious beliefs. In 2012, after all, the anti-Mormon rhetoric was better than in 2008.)

There are a couple of different theories about why the flip-flopper has now flip-flopped on this most important of questions. One is the whiff of opportunity. Last July, a CNN poll found that Romney was beating Obama in a hypothetical match-up, 53% to 44%. Granted, that same poll found that he’d be trounced by probable Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in a general election, with Clinton winning 55% and Romney just 42%. But still, it seemed the bloom was back on the Romney rose.

Another possibility is that he’s not actually running. Work with me here. Here’s what Slate hypothesizes might be going on:

Romney thinks Bush can win a general election, but he’s much more skeptical about the primary and worries that Bush could lose, elevating a candidate who might fail in a fight against Hillary Clinton or Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But instead of criticizing Bush and bringing these questions into the open, he is making a more subtle move. By announcing interest in the Republican nomination, Romney is freezing his donors in place and blocking a rush to the Bush camp. In essence, he’s asking the moneymen of the GOP to wait and see before they join the Bush bandwagon.

Is Romney really running, or is he just making Jeb Bush really, really work for the nomination?

It’s not clear.

One thing is evident, however, and it’s that I should start taking whatever Romney says with a very large grain of salt.