DEER VALLEY — Former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Thursday kicked off his annual policy retreat that puts big-money donors together with Republican contenders for the White House in 2016.
The guest list for the three-day private gathering at the Stein Eriksen Lodge includes New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney's 2012 running mate.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio were invited but are not able to attend. The only Democrat who may run for president expected is former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
The E2 (for experts and enthusiasts) Summit will also feature Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning as well as former Secretary of State George Schultz, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and other government and business leaders.
Also making an appearance is Utah congressional candidate Mia Love, who's running again in the 4th District after nearly beating retiring Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, there in 2012.
Love, who, if she wins in November, would be the first black female Republican member of the U.S. House, said she was invited to participate in a panel about Republican women.
"We're going to talk about the experience of being conservative women," Love told the Deseret News. She said she intends to focus on the need to bring more women into politics.
"I think the best people to talk about women's issues are women," the former Saratoga Springs mayor said. "We live in the real world. We work. We have children. We play all sorts of roles."
Joining Love in the discussion will be New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez and GOP strategist Ana Navarro.
Love said she had no plans to mingle with the wealthy contributors to Romney's campaign, many of whom are also investors in Solamere, a private equity firm that is sponsoring the retreat. The firm is founded by Romney's son Tagg.
"That's not what I'm there to do," she said, adding she hopes she can leave the panel early to attend an Eagle Scout ceremony. "I think it's more of an honor, that invite."
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said while Republicans "gather in luxury" and participate in events such as skeet-shooting with Ryan, Utah's GOP leaders are blocking Medicaid expansion and other reforms.
"The priorities of the Republican Party are clear — donors and ideology before people," Corroon said.
Love said she anticipates Romney will again endorse her in her race against Democrat Doug Owens. She addressed the Republican National Convention that nominated Romney but said she has no favorite candidate for president this time.
University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said Love could end up hitting the campaign trail for a GOP candidate in 2016, given her already-high profile in the party.
"She could be a very important person come 2016," Hagle said. "She has the potential to be a national figure if she wants it."
Hagle said Romney is also raising his profile with this event. He said the former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah seems to be looking for more political involvement.
"I'm kind of surprised. I would have thought he would be disgusted with it all after he got roughed up" in the last election, Hagle said. "But he seems to have put it past him."
A press room has been set up for reporters at the retreat, and at least one event will be open for limited coverage. That's a change from similar retreats held in 2012 and 2013 in Deer Valley, where reporters were turned away.
"It sounds like this year, they've found more of a balance," Hagle said. "There's plenty of talk already in 2016, so it's no surprise media folks are interested," especially in an election year for Congress.
During one of two TV interviews Romney has scheduled during the retreat, he told FoxNews' Neil Cavuto he had no interest in taking over the troubled U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — or another White House run.
Interviewed just outside the lodge with ski runs as a backdrop, Romney said he had not been approached about the VA position and was focused on trying "to get America strong again."
Romney is also scheduled to appear on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday from the posh ski resort community. He and his wife, Ann, are spending time at their recently purchased Deer Valley home during the retreat.
Quin Monson, a Brigham Young University political science professor, said Romney is playing an important role in at least the money side of the 2016 campaign.
"What we know about presidential campaigns is that the money primary is pretty important, the fundraising part of this, the fact that Mitt Romney is willing to share some access to bundlers," those who gather multiple campaign contributions.
Potential 2016 candidates, Monson said, "want to be mentioned in that group and taken seriously. At this point, Romney is a bit of a kingmaker because he gets to decide who's taken seriously."
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