WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As Republican leaders sift through the ruins of the 2008 election and debate the party's future at the Republican Governors Association meeting this week, one of the GOP's potential standard-bearers is instead on a Caribbean cruise.
But it isn't just any cruise and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney isn't just any Republican. Since the economy began its historic downturn six weeks ago, Romney's stock in his party appears to have skyrocketed.
The former business consultant and founder of Bain Capital handled economic issues during his campaign with an ease and confidence that seemed to elude Sen. John McCain. As the stock market tanked throughout the fall, a growing chorus of conservative pundits speculated Romney would have boosted the GOP ticket considerably more than Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin did.
Now the onetime front-runner for the Republican nomination is schmoozing influential party insiders on the National Review's annual cruise -- a gathering of 700 conservative activists and the same forum where Palin wowed the movement's media elite last year, beginning her meteoric rise from obscure governor to vice presidential nominee.
But even as Romney publicly declares he has no intentions to run again, several former aides said they believe he will, and this week's get-together with leading conservatives is only the latest sign the man who spent more than $50 million of his own money to vie for the party's nomination last year is itching to do it again. Watch more on the GOP's rising stars »
After all, in many ways Romney's campaign for 2012 appeared to begin the instant he abandoned his primary bid in February. Instead of the conventional location befitting most losing candidates -- his home state, surrounded by friends and family -- Romney broke the news to grass-roots activists at a gathering in Washington.
The last-minute announcement was greeted with cries of surprise and was seen as a public attempt to bolster his standing with the key GOP voting bloc that largely broke former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's way through the first round of primary contests.
"There he was addressing the largest gathering every year of conservatives, and it was extremely symbolic in many ways," said Matt Lewis, a writer for the conservative Web site Townhall.com. "That's where he chose to say for the good of the movement he was going to get out. It was very well-received by most people, and he is now in a better position to garner more conservative support because of it."
After bowing out, Romney maintained a constant presence on the campaign trail and cable news circuit on McCain's behalf, signaling to political observers that he still harbored presidential ambitions, even after he was passed up for the No. 2 spot on the party's ticket.
Romney also has maintained close relationships with key supporters in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, according to party officials there, and could easily revive the infrastructure he built should he launch another bid.
If the economy continues to flail after four years of Democratic rule, Romney's economic acumen may be in demand when it comes to restoring GOP power to the White House.
"If the economy remains the dominant issue, there will certainly be a draft Romney movement, you can count on it," Lewis said.
Romney also may be positioned to attract a wider base of support than some of the other figures on the Republican bench, including the now-GOP rock star Palin and Huckabee, whose 2008 campaign outlasted Romney's. Both have shown the ability to generate excitement among base voters but appear to remain fairly unappealing to the more moderate faction of the party -- not to mention independent voters who are permitted to vote in some Republican primaries.
Al Regnery, publisher of The American Spectator who attended a summit of prominent conservatives in Virginia last week, said movement leaders continue to toss around Romney's name as they look to the future.
"People are going to have to compete for what will be the equivalent of several interviews with conservatives as to whether they fit the job description, and Romney would certainly be one of these contenders," Regnery said.
But even as the Romney drumbeat already can be heard in some corners of the party, it remains possible the former governor will face the same problems that hindered his 2008 campaign -- namely the perception he is overambitious and given to flip-flopping on issues for political expediency.
"Many conservatives never really trusted him," Regnery said. "A lot of people think he pretty much adjusted his message to meet the needs [of the base]. He's going to have to go back around and talk to the dinners and talk to the small groups and large groups and write op-eds with a fairly consistent message."
Stephen Wayne, a professor of American government at Georgetown University, also noted that not holding elected office now makes it more difficult for Romney to stay relevant on the political scene.
"He's going to need some vehicle to stay in the public eye and comment on the economy and, if appropriate, be critical of the new Obama administration," Wayne said. "One of the problems that people who are not in elected office have is that they don't have a ready platform until you start running for office."
But should Romney decide on a second presidential run, he's likely to face a friendlier reception than his first go-around. The base may to be more convinced of Romney's conservative commitment if he's willing to take another stab at the presidency, activists say, and the Republican Party has a history of rewarding presidential candidates who have run at least once and lost.
"There is a tradition in the Republican Party -- you run first for the nomination and lose, and then you run and get it," Wayne said, pointing to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, former Sen. Bob Dole and McCain.
"Losing once is almost a badge of honor among Republicans."
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