SALT LAKE CITY — Three potential GOP presidential candidates are expected to be in Deer Valley next week vying for attention at a private retreat for big-money donors hosted by the party's 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney.
The "Experts and Enthusiasts" event set for Thursday and Friday at Stein Erickson Lodge will bring together New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul with some 200 Romney backers.
Also attending will be corporate and academic leaders and even a few Democrats, including President Barack Obama's top campaign strategist, David Axelrod, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, mentioned as a long shot contender in 2016.
For the Republicans considering a run for the White House, the gathering is an opportunity to stand out, said longtime Romney supporter Kirk Jowers, the head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
"I know Romney would never pose this as an audition," Jowers said. But what the trio of potential candidates say and do during the closed-door discussions "will make big impressions on Mitt and everybody else in the room."
Although Ryan was Romney's running mate in 2012, Jowers said that doesn't mean Ryan could count on an endorsement from Romney in the next presidential race despite their close relationship.
Earlier this week, Ann Romney told "This Morning" on CBS that she and her husband "always are very, very partial to Paul Ryan, but we don't even know if he's going to run. But there are some good candidates."
That isn't enough to "tip the scale for Mitt in 2016. He is very much a results-oriented guy," Jowers said. "If he feels somebody else is the answer to our country's problems, I think he would get behind that person regardless of personal relationships."
Some Republicans touted for 2016 aren't going to be at the retreat, which starts Wednesday with an update for donors who are also investors in Solamere Capital, a private equity firm where Mitt Romney now serves as chairman.
Those missing from the program include Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, as well as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who ran a tough race against Romney in 2012; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Jowers said it's not clear who may have been asked to participate but was either unable or unwilling to attend. "The big mystery was who was invited and who declined," he said of the closely guarded guest list.
Only invitees received an email detailing the "variety of unique industry, political and thought leaders" coming to the retreat, which costs $5,000, a fee intended only to cover expenses.
University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said of all the would-be GOP candidates, Rubio has the highest profile and "may not be someone who needs to introduce himself to Romney donors because of his name recognition."
Scala said the donors who supported Romney probably are looking for a similar candidate for 2016.
"I imagine there are a lot of Republican elites who would maintain, despite the fact that Romney lost, the way to get back the White House is to nominate somebody like Romney who is more of a center right candidate," he said.
Christie, who angered many Romney supporters in the final days of the 2012 race by embracing Obama in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, comes closest to fitting that bill, Scala said.
But the event will give a less mainstream contender like Paul, son of Libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul, who also ran against Romney last time, a chance to show donors "he's someone they could do business with."
Ryan is likely to focus at the event on his budget expertise as the author of a proposal to balance federal spending by slashing many government programs, especially entitlements.
University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said of the three Republicans attending the retreat, Rand Paul may be the closest to running. Paul recently made several appearances in Iowa, traditionally the first state to vote in presidential races.
Hagle said the opportunity to woo supporters at the event "could be important. I don't know that it's essential" since this early in the election cycle it's far from certain who may end up in the race.
Scala said Romney, who was described by The Wall Street Journal on Friday as "putting a tentative foot back onto the public stage" by hosting the retreat, "seems like he's trying to make his aims modest."
Much of Romney's influence on the GOP, Scala said, will come from his ties to donors. Romney told The Wall Street Journal he plans to campaign for 2014 candidates but won't "be bothering the airwaves with a constant series of speeches."
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