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Will Mitt Romney run for president in 2016?

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 12:23 PM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney with his wife, Ann, and their sons, left to right, Tagg, Ben, Matt, Craig and Josh, in an undated photo. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney with his wife, Ann, and their sons, left to right, Tagg, Ben, Matt, Craig and Josh, in an undated photo.
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Meet the Romneys
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Meet the Romneys
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Meet the Romneys
Meet the Romneys
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mitt Romney's former advisers are denying rumors that he might run for presidency in 2016
  • Julian Zelizer: If Romney does decide to run, he may end up at the top of the GOP ticket
  • He says each of the current presidential contenders in the GOP is flawed
  • Zelizer: Romney's stance on issues appeals to Republicans, and he's great at fund-raising

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that Mitt Romney's former political advisers are adamantly denying rumors that their boss might run for the presidency in 2016. "I take Mitt at his absolute word," said Ron Kaufman. "He's not running."

Whether or not Romney wants to run, or if his family is comfortable with his doing so, will be up to them.

But should he decide to put his hat in the ring, it's not crazy to think that Romney would be able to end up at the top of the Republican ticket in 2016.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Most pundits believed that his political career had come to an end following his loss to President Obama in 2012. But a sympathetic portrayal in a Netflix documentary, entitled "Mitt," combined with his fund-raising for midterm candidates in the 2014 elections, has generated considerable buzz.

The odds are obviously not great. Republicans would naturally be jittery about selecting a candidate who couldn't make it through the primaries in 2008 and then crashed and burned against Obama. While many Republicans were sure that Obama should be a one-term president -- another Jimmy Carter, in their minds -- the Democrats devastated Romney as a candidate who only cared about the rich and who had no inner core.

So how could someone recover from this kind of loss? How could Romney end up as the next Republican nominee?

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has said his decision to run for the Republican nomination will be based on two things -- his family and whether he can lift America's spirit. His father and brother formerly served as President. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has said his decision to run for the Republican nomination will be based on two things -- his family and whether he can lift America's spirit. His father and brother formerly served as President.
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
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Potential 2016 presidential candidates Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Romney backers tease '16 interest
Mitt Romney says 'no' to 2016

If he were interested in running, Romney could take some comfort from the fact that some political losers have been able to rebuild themselves. Richard Nixon seemed like he would vanish into political thin air after losing to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election and then losing to Pat Brown in the California gubernatorial election in 1962.

"You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore," he said after losing. That turned out to be incorrect, not because Nixon vanished from politics but because he came back stronger than ever in 1968. After building his reputation as a statesman and playing a key role in helping Republicans in the 1966 midterm campaign, Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey to become president in 1968.

Ronald Reagan, after coming close to defeating President Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican primaries, spent the next four years expanding his audience and refining his message through his weekly radio shows. He became the front-runner in 1980 and beat Carter to become president.

Like Nixon in 1966, Romney has been proving his worth on the campaign trail in 2014. He is the "man in demand." Romney "is the most prominent and engaged elder statesman the GOP has on the national stage right now," one Republican consultant told CNN, watching how the former presidential candidate has been a star at fund-raising events.

While a number of figures in the Republican Party are clearly preparing to jump into the presidential race, each of them is flawed. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky espouses a kind of libertarianism that doesn't sit well with most of the party. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie might rebuild his career, but "bridgegate" has greatly tarnished his reputation. Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker has a scandal of his own. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is untested on the national stage and will try to run as the "immigrant" candidate in a party that has stood by a very hardline position on immigration. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has to contend with the Bush name in an electorate that still harbors negative feelings about his brother's time in the White House. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who is becoming the most plausible candidate, is too closely associated with the right wing of his party and comes from a caucus of House Republicans who rank incredibly low in the polls.

Despite all the animosity that emerged toward Romney's wealth and his record on economic issues, the fact is that Romney's preference for strong deregulatory and regressive policies fits very comfortably with the major thrust of the party. Since Reagan's presidency in the 1980s, the heart of GOP policies has not been about social and cultural issues, but rather about aiming to weaken the regulatory arm of the government over the economy. On these issues, Romney has impeccable credentials. As a result, Romney will still hold considerable appeal among major donors and conservative activists, like the Koch brothers, as the candidate who will aggressively pursue their core agenda. The money and endorsements can go a long way.

It is not that difficult to see how the nation might witness a presidential campaign in 2016 that includes Mitt Romney. Whether he would be able to take on Hillary Clinton or some of the other potential Democratic nominees remains unclear. But speculation that he might end up as the person the GOP turns to is not that out of the bounds of reason.

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