Lisa Riley Roche, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — A booth at the recent state GOP convention appeared to explain the status of the "Draft Mitt" movement in Utah — an empty table in front of a pile of signs encouraging a Romney presidential run in 2016 adorned with a few American flags.
But Utah State Republican Party Chairman James Evans said the unattended booth was only intended to hint at what's to come from a group of Romney supporters around the country being organized as a political nonprofit group.
Evans won't say what the group is calling itself or who outside of Utah is involved, but he said it's behind a website, draftmitt.org, that seeks signatures on a petition "to send Mitt Romney a message we need him as our president."
Between now and December, the state party leader said, the intent is to gather enough signatures online, especially from conservatives who didn't support him in 2012, to convince Romney to change his mind.
"The question has to be answered: What's changed? And what we predict is those who didn't vote for Mitt Romney that allowed Barack Obama to be re-elected have seen enough that they have buyer's remorse," Evans said.
Romney, of course, has said again and again he has no interest in making another run after losing the party's nomination to Sen. John McCain in 2008 and the election to President Barack Obama in 2012.
"I've had two bites at the apple. Three strikes and you're out," Romney told a University of Utah business school audience. Lately, the former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City has simply been saying, "No, no, no."
Evans said the "Draft Mitt" movement accepts "Gov. Romney's position as just his first offer. We have to respond back with evidence to show why the 'no' is a position that needs to change."
Stories continue to surface suggesting there could be another run in Romney.
On CBS' "Face the Nation" last Sunday, host Bob Schieffer said an unnamed source told him Romney "may actually try it again" if fellow Republican and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush doesn't get in the race.
"They're very concerned the party is not moving forward, that the party has moved so far to the right that the party can't elect a presidential candidate," Schieffer said during a panel discussion on the weekly talk show.
Panelist Bobby Ghosh of Time magazine questioned whether Romney would shift the party more toward the center in a third run.
"What we learned the second time he ran was that he moved more to the right, and I suspect if he runs for a third time, we'll see that continue," Ghosh said. "If they're seeing him as centrist, as somebody who can gather all of the strings of the party together, I don't think the evidence supports that."
The Washington Post reported last month that Romney has jumped back onto the political stage, helping candidates in a "party elder" role since the past two living GOP presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush are less involved.
Romney has already been involved in the 2016 race, bringing together his big-money donors and would-be GOP candidates, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie last year at a private retreat in Deer Valley.
The Post said this year's retreat will include Romney's 2012 running mate, Sen. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee but not Jeb Bush, who had a scheduling conflict.
Evans said the "Draft Mitt" group isn't seeking permission from Romney.
"We have not made a secret about this," the GOP chairman said, promising a public launch of the effort is coming and will likely be made in South Carolina, the first southern presidential primary state. "We have our job to do."
Part of that job, Evans said, is to make the public understand the push isn't coming from the potential candidate.
"The thing we always have to balance against, is the public perception whether this is an official Romney action or a grassroots action," he said, noting the signs at the political convention were intended to build interest.
"It wasn't designed to be staffed. It was designed to promote the idea," Evans said of the booth. The signs, he said, were grabbed up by convention delegates. "Clearly, Utah is not the problem."
One of Romney's strongest backers in Utah, though, isn't part of the effort.
"Of course I wish he were the president now and would be willing to run in 2016," said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "I will always be his biggest supporter, but I take him at his word that the answer is no."
Despite Romney's "favorite son" status in Utah, the state party didn't include his name in a 2016 presidential straw poll taken at a Western Republican Leadership Conference fundraising dinner the night before the convention.
The winner of the straw poll with 39 percent of the vote was Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who appeared at a Republican rally in Utah after the dinner. His nearest competitor, with 18 percent, was another GOP senator with tea party ties, Paul.
Evans said including Romney in the straw poll would have skewed the results.
"We were trying to be good sports," he said. "That would have been unfair."
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