"Mitt told the group of 30 or so guys that were there that he is considering a run for the White House and that they could go tell their friends," a source in the room told CNN. The Wall Street Journal first reported the comments.
Though his loyalists and supportive donors have floated his name as a potential candidate for the better part of a year, Romney himself has been more reticent about mounting another White House bid after his 2008 and 2012 losses.
But Romney's outlook has changed in recent weeks, according to people who have spoken with him recently, and he seems to be more serious than ever before.
Romney has kept in close touch with his donors, many of whom have become close friends over two presidential cycles, according to one source close to Romney who was not at the meeting in New York but is familiar with his thinking. Romney hosts an annual retreat each year in Park City for policy discussions—and used the two most recent gatherings in 2013 and 2014 to introduce them to potential 2016 presidential candidates including Rand Paul and Chris Christie. (Jeb Bush was invited to speak last summer, but could not attend because of previous commitments, including his father's birthday).
Many of Romney's New York donors, who are in frequent touch with him, had suggested a lunch or get-together when Romney was in New York, which resulted in the meeting with donors on Friday as he was on his way back from Charlie Baker's swearing in as the new governor of Massachusetts, this person said.
Former aides to Romney have said that his thinking about the race has evolved over several months, particularly after he had time to reflect on being back on the campaign trail for the midterm races. As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has moved toward a bid, many donors had pressed him for a signal about his level of interest.
"He had not closed his mind on this, and today was the day that he decided to share that with the group of people he was with," the source familiar with Romney's thinking said. "His conviction that the country is on the wrong track is very strong. He's very concerned with America's role in the world. Nothing has changed on that."
As far as re-entering the field for the Republican nomination, the source said, "He knows he would have to earn it, he knows no one is handed the nomination, but he's giving it some thought....His head hasn't changed, I think he was just formalizing it a little bit," at the Friday meeting, the source said, to let donors know he was considering a bid more seriously.
Romney's comments come in the wake of Jeb Bush's stepped-up political activity. Bush, Romney and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — all favorites of the Republican establishment and New York donor community — would presumably draw from the same pool of financial backers.
"I think he is serious," said the person at the New York meeting. "One of the first things he said he said was, 'People ask me, do you want to be president? Well, yes, I did run twice."
Romney said that his wife, Ann, is "very encouraging" about 2016, the source said, but his sons are split about the idea, the source who was in the room said.
The source familiar with Romney's thinking also said Ann is "supportive of it" if that's what Romney wants. "I don't think he would have come to this without talking to his family."
At the heart of this, this source adds, is that "the state of the country hasn't settled for him. he won't be happy sitting on the sidelines."
The former Massachusetts governor told the crowd that a potential campaign would "have to have a positive message." He also said, somewhat obviously, that he "would run a different campaign from what he's run in the past."
Romney entertained questions about the rest of the potential 2016 field but had only positive things to say about his would-be rivals, the source said.
The news comes after a week chock-full of high-profile potential Republican presidential candidates taking the first steps toward announcing their candidacy for the 2016 election.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush launched a Leadership PAC this week, just days after resigning his position on various corporate and nonprofite boards. And former GOP presidential contender Mike Huckabee quit his show on Fox News last week to give 2016 some serious consideration.
And CNN reported Wednesday that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is assembling a team
for a potential 2016 presidential bid.
The revelation of Romney's overtures to top GOP donors is yet another addition to the long-term game of footsy Romney has played with the media and other Republicans who would like to know whether Romney is in or out -- though it's certainly the most definitive and serious indication that Romney might actually launch a third presidential bid.
Romney was rumored to be through with his presidential ambitions after a grueling 2012 run, but this summer he made several head nods that he was considering.
Romney told the Washington Post this summer that "we'll have to see what happens" and said in another interview that the chances were very slim -- but conceded there was nonetheless always a chance.
"We never say never," Ann Romney said on CNN's "New Day" this summer.