Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to students at Brigham Young University in Provo Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2014.

WASHINGTON — The will-he-or-won't-he speculation of a possible third run at the White House by Mitt Romney got more serious Friday as reports emerged of a meeting between Romney and potential campaign donors.

Romney attended a private gathering of donors at the New York offices of Woody Johnson, a leading Romney donor in 2012 and owner of the New York Jets, and told those gathered that he’s seriously considering a third run for the White House, several people with direct knowledge of the meeting told The Associated Press.

All spoke under condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to speak publicly about the private discussions. The meeting was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Romney has repeatedly said in public that he is not running again. But insiders have also repeatedly said during the past few months that circumstances could prompt him to jump into the race, speculation that Romney himself has not tamped down.

Longtime Romney friend Kem Gardner told the Deseret News two weeks ago that Romney is "not ruling it out, and he's not ruling it in."

Spencer Zwick, who raised $1 billion for Romney's 2012 campaign, said at the time the decision is a personal one for Romney and isn't going to be dependent on how any other Republican in the race is doing.

Zwick said Romney's decision will be "based on whether he wants to do it again."

Friday's news is consistent with Romney keeping his options open and comes as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush marches toward a 2016 bid of his own, which threatens to win much of the support from the Republican establishment that fueled Romney’s last campaign.

Bush has spent recent weeks hosting private fundraising meetings across the country and is courting top talent to staff a potential campaign. While the first primary contests in the 2016 race are roughly a year away, and no one has formally declared his or her candidacy, more than a dozen high-profile candidates are considering getting into the race.

Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, told KSL Friday, “I think he’s trying to make it not too big of a deal to announce that he’s thinking about it to the public."

"We’ve seen Jeb Bush in particular who has really been making waves about how he’s creating his PACs and he’s going to raise $100 million and he’s doing all of these different things," said Jowers, speaking as a longtime Romney supporter.

"What Jeb is trying to do is lock in these fundraisers, these bundlers, these key people in the early states and so I think this was Romney’s way of telling the people who would probably prefer to support him instead of Jeb Bush that he’s thinking about it as well, so don’t make too early of a decision because their first choice may very well be getting into the race.”

One person at Friday’s meeting, which included a conference call and was attended by roughly 15 of Romney’s most generous and loyal past donors, said the gathering was meant to be an open-ended discussion among old friends.

Several donors in the room had already privately committed to other 2016 contenders but wanted to hear from their one-time favorite. Some were caught by surprise when Romney suggested he was considering a 2016 campaign after months of public denials.

Others asked Romney what he would do differently after a 2012 campaign in which he struggled at times to connect with middle-class voters. Toward the end of the hourlong session, Romney told his one-time allies they should tell their friends that a Romney 2016 campaign is under serious consideration, according to one person in the room.

Romney also acknowledged he needs to act quickly should he decide to run, said a top GOP donor briefed on the meeting. Were Romney moving to join the 2016 field, many who served in senior roles in his previous campaigns assumed they would have been given a heads-up about an announcement.

In addition to Johnson, Friday’s meeting with Romney included Emil Henry Jr., an assistant treasury secretary in the Bush administration; Alexander Navab, of the financial firm KKR; Patrick Durkin, a managing director at Barclays; Clifford Sobel, managing partner of Valor Capital Group; and Edward C. Forst, CEO at Cushman & Wakefield.

Romney, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008 and 2012, has repeatedly insisted he would not run again. At a political rally in New Hampshire last summer, he said he would “get behind the one who I think has the best chance of winning.” “We’ll get someone who can win,” he added.