Failed 2012 candidate Romney said to personally dislike Jeb – and has signalled that he may yet back Christie for 2016, because ‘a Bush can’t beat a Clinton’
After announcing that he would not, after all, be mounting a third campaign for the US presidency, Mitt Romney signalled on Friday that he may forge a reconciliation with Chris Christie to stop Jeb Bush’s bid for the Republican nomination next year.
Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, had been facing a probable three-way fight for the support – and chequebooks – of the party’s so-called establishment wing against Christie, the governor of New Jersey, and Bush, former governor of Florida.
Bush and Christie this week secured the services of respected party operatives in Iowa who were previously loyal to Romney – David Kochel for Bush and Phil Valenziano for Christie – a development that may have helped the former Massachusetts governor come to his senses.
Romney’s departure sets up a possible head-to-head contest on the centre-right. “It makes room for other candidates like Governor Christie, who might have been squeezed out, to be more competitive,” said John Weaver, a senior adviser to Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign. “But it also makes Jeb more of a frontrunner than he was.”
In a call to allies to announce he was stepping aside, Romney appeared to lean toward endorsing a candidate more like Christie, a boisterous 52-year-old free from historic baggage, who appears determined to soon make the leap from Trenton to the national stage.
“I believe that one of the next generation of our Republican leaders, one who may not be as well known as I am today, one who has not yet taken their message across the country, one who’s just getting started, may well emerge as being better able to defeat the Democratic nominee,” said Romney, who is 67. “In fact, I expect and hope that to be the case.”
Bush – the son and brother of two presidents, who turns 62 next month and has not run for office in more than 12 years – does not fit that bill. And immediately after Romney’s call to supporters, the New York Times reported that he would be having dinner with Christie on Friday evening .
Romney is said to personally dislike Bush. Sitting on a fortune of at least $250m, the Bain Capital founder apparently considers Bush’s business record to be small-fry.
Bush’s cautious and half-hearted support in 2012 also rankled in Romneyworld. “Christie endorsed Romney very early, before New Hampshire, and Bush only came on basically after it was a fait accompli that Romney was going to be the nominee,” said one senior Republican strategist, a veteran of the 2012 contest. “Sometimes people keep score of that kind of stuff.”
A mantra reportedly popular in Romney’s circle that apparently fuelled his flirtation with a 2016 campaign held that Jeb would flounder against the presumed Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. “A Bush can’t beat a Clinton,” it went.
But a PPP poll released earlier on Friday indicated that Jeb may well get the chance to try. While Romney led the party pack with 21%, some 74% of Republican primary voters said they would prefer someone else to be the nominee. With Bush snapping at Romney’s heels on 17% – a margin easily closed as the advantage derived from Romney’s name recognition as “the last guy” faded – Christie, a distant seventh on just 7%, is in need of some help.
The lukewarm reception that Christie received at last weekend’s Freedom Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, reflected the fact that conservatives remain intensely distrustful of him. He is perceived by some as a moderate northerner whose adoption of opposition to abortion rights and gun control earlier in his career show that he is not one of them.
Some Republicans fear that Christie’s vaunted retail political skills could be overshadowed by his abrasive manner when he is confronted by voters who disagree with him. “I could be wrong, but I have a hard time seeing that go over well in coffee shops and diners and American Legions in Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Weaver.
The supposed warmth between Romney and Christie implied by the prompt disclosure of Friday’s dinner date contrasted with a boilerplate statement of thanks issued via Facebook by Bush . “Mitt is a patriot and I join many in hoping his days of serving our nation and our party are not over,” he said.
Christie raised money for Romney in 2012 and joined him several times on the campaign trail, delivering a memorable endorsement on a frigid and rainy morning in West Des Moines in the final days before the Iowa caucuses. And while Christie owes his career to former president George W Bush, who rewarded his prolific fundraising in 2000 with the job of US attorney for New Jersey, he has shown no sign of respectfully getting in line behind George’s younger brother in 2016.
Yet an alliance between Romney and Christie would also require a rapprochement. Relations between the two had chilled badly even before Romney’s crushing defeat by Barack Obama in November 2012.
The New Jersey governor dumbfounded the Romney campaign by saying that he should release his tax returns “sooner rather than later” at the height of a Democratic-led campaign to force Romney to disclose them. Christie thanked them for giving him the keynote slot at the Republican National Convention – effectively a coronation ceremony for the presidential nominee – by shamelessly delivering a speech all about his own brilliance rather than Romney’s.
Then, on the eve of the general election, and to the astonishment of many Republicans, he stood alongside Obama and praised the president’s surefooted response to hurricane Sandy. On top of all that, Christie exasperated Romney aides with what has been described as chronic tardiness on the campaign trail.
Team Romney, however, had their revenge. In a move that took the breath away from even hardened campaign veterans, they explained in great detail to the authors of Double Down – the sequel to the blockbuster 2008 campaign chronicle Game Change – that the vetting of Christie by Romney’s vice-presidential search team had turned up a horror show.
“The vetters were stunned by the garish controversies lurking in the shadows of his record,” wrote Mark Halperin and John Heilemann . As Ted Newton, one of the senior Romney aides running the process, apparently put it: “When you look below the surface, it’s not pretty.” The authors also disclosed that Romney was disdainful of Christie’s obesity.
Never one to shy from confrontation, Christie could not resist a returning punch. “Political advice from people who ran the Romney campaign is probably something nobody should really give a darn about,” he said at the time. As he prepares to embark on his own quest for the White House, the New Jersey governor may need to quickly make nice.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015