Mitt Romney had dinner with Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen at Little Dooey, a barbecue restaurant in Starkville, Miss., Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Mitt Romney had dinner with Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen at Little Dooey, a barbecue restaurant in Starkville, Miss., Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015.

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Mitt Romney announced Friday he won't run for president again -- a decision he made a week ago

While in Mississippi on Wednesday, he may have offered some hints that he wasn't going to be running

Washington CNN —  

While Mitt Romney announced he wouldn’t run for president on Friday, he had personally come to that decision a week prior – well before he made campaign-style stop in Starkville Mississippi, on Wednesday that kept the national press scrutinizing his every statement for any hints about his political future.

He shook hands and took selfies with young voters, attacked Hillary Clinton in a high profile speech, and laid out his thoughts about foreign and domestic policy—all signs that suggested he was gearing up for a third presidential bid.

But a closer look at the day’s events—and the benefit of hindsight—reveal some clues that Romney knew at the time he wouldn’t be throwing his hat in the ring.

He talked more about the past than the future

Speaking at Mississippi State University, Romney spent the first half of his speech talking almost entirely about his 2012 campaign when he was the Republican nominee.

Many of the light-hearted and funny moments in the speech occurred while Romney used self-deprecating humor to describe the last presidential cycle. “You may not have heard: I lost,” Romney said towards the beginning of his speech.

He drew a big laugh from the audience when he said a supporter once advised him to stop shaving so he can “grow a little more stubble for a few days to look more sexy.”

“As if I needed that,” Romney continued flatly.

He lovingly recalled people he met on the campaign trail, labeling some of his most devoted followers in Iowa and New Hampshire “heroes” because they adamantly supported someone they believed in. He described the campaign as one of “the most remarkable of my life’s journeys” but spoke with a tone of finality when recalling that it would eventually come to an end.

“What we knew at the beginning was that win or lose, any acclaim would eventually be forgotten,” he said. “As the 1940s song Jimmy Durante used to sing: ‘Fame if you win it, comes and goes in a minute.’”

Granted, it’s a line he has used in previous speeches, but it’s an example of how he was in a reflective mood.

He declined to answer a question from the moderator about how he would run a potential campaign differently from 2012—”That’s another question I won’t answer”—and went on to talk about how Republicans should do better at having a “clear and compelling message,” especially when talking to nontraditional GOP voters, like minorities and young people.

He even suggested that Republicans have “to stop thinking so much about the primary and start thinking more about making sure we have people that support us in the general election.”

That’s pretty bold—if not daring—talk for a potential candidate. Jeb Bush, for example, got hammered in the conservative media for making a similar suggestion back in December.

Romney appeared to sound more like he was angling to become a kingmaker than a candidate. He continually referred to a need for “strong leaders” and “leadership” but didn’t narrow down his remarks to talk rhetorically about a single leader.

His policy ideas were vague

It was on that very topic—minority outreach—that political observers were most closely trying to examine Romney’s recent statements and comments. He won only 6% of the African American vote and 27% of the Hispanic vote in 2012.

Speaking to the Republican National Committee earlier this month, Romney suggested the party needed to focus more on anti-poverty policies, and in his speech on Wednesday he laid out some of his ideas for tackling the issue.

But his ideas were vague and lacked the kind of depth that would churn more interest in a potential campaign. He argued that the government, for example, was providing incentives for single mothers to stay on federal assistance and avoid marriage because they could lose their benefits once they became married.

“If marriage … is essential to helping people to stay out of poverty, then we want to do the opposite,” he said. “We want to create incentives for them to get married, not to not get married.”

He also said K-12 education needs to improve, and he encouraged creating incentives for people to hire workers who haven’t worked before, but didn’t outline specifics.

Those come nowhere near close to some of the more serious proposals by his former running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, or by Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul – who have made efforts to address poverty through criminal justice reform.

Mystery and pulled pork

Romney was noticeably more relaxed, not only in his speech, but at a barbecue joint he stopped at earlier in the day to meet with voters.

He joked with the national reporters following him in the cramped space that there’s an “unwritten rule” that politicians shouldn’t be photographed while eating. But he continued to eat anyway.

“Do you still consider yourself a politician, then?” one reporter asked, to which Romney replied: “You’re taking my picture. What can I say?”

Another asked if this is “the new Romney,” noting that he appeared not to care that he was eating before the cameras. “I didn’t know I had a choice,” he shot back, drawing some laughs.

A conversation Romney had with Mississippi State football coach Dan Mullen at the table also seemed to provide a window into perhaps some bitter feelings Romney still has about coverage from 2012.

In politics, Romney argued, there’s too much emphasis on what a person says, rather than what a person does.

“It’d be nice if people who run for office, that their leadership experience and what they’ve accomplished in life would be a bigger part of what people focus on, but it’s not,” he said. “It’s mostly what you say.”

What you do, Romney told Mullen, “is a lot more important that what you say,” noting how a football coach’s reputation is almost entirely based on his record. “You could be the sweetest talking person in the world, but unless you got a record, you’re in trouble,” he said.

Still, he was doing a meet-and-greet—in his jeans and a plaid shirt like he used to—and anyone watching him could have walked away thinking this was a “go.”

The mystery of his barbecue outing–the will he or won’t he–was perfectly captured in a response Romney gave to one man who urged him to run again.

“You’re very kind,” Romney replied, patting the man on the arm. “I wish I were there right now, I gotta tell ya.”

CNN’s Steve Brusk contributed to this report.