Julio Cortez, Associated Press
In this photo taken Dec. 1, 2014. for Republican presidential canadiate Mitt Romney smiles on the field before an NFL football game between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins in East Rutherford, N.J.
"I was surprised, but not shocked. I know how much Gov. Romney cares about the country. He has something to offer. —Jim Merrill, former top Romney staffer in New Hampshire

ATLANTA — Mitt Romney and his wife reached out to former staff and supporters in key states over the weekend, making contact just hours after shocking many by signaling interest in a third run for president.

The Republican Party's 2012 presidential nominee told a private gathering of New York-area donors on Friday that he is again seriously exploring running for the White House. The next day, Romney began phoning former backers in Iowa and New Hampshire, including Jim Merrill, a top Romney staffer in New Hampshire during his 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

"We had a great conversation. He made it clear to me he is seriously considering the race," Merrill said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press. "When you get a phone call like that at close to 9 on a Saturday night, it means something."

Romney also called a handful of others supporters in the state, while his wife, Ann Romney, phoned Susan Duprey, her personal traveling companion during the 2012 campaign and the wife of New Hampshire's national committeeman, Steve Duprey.

Calls from Romney also went to several boldface names in Republican politics, including his 2012 running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who said Monday he would not run for president in 2016.

Others on Romney's call list: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and the state's former governor, John Sununu; former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who ran for president in 2012; Meg Whitman, chief executive at Hewlett-Packard Co.; Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz; and two former senators, Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Jim Talent of Missouri.

Romney's move toward the 2016 campaign comes after months on insistence that he would not seek the White House for a third time. "The reality is this, and I'll say it the same way I have for quite some time, which is, I'm not running, I'm not planning on running," Romney said on Fox News in November.

While Romney was the overwhelming front-runner at the beginning of the 2012 campaign, he would join a 2016 field expected to feature more than a dozen Republicans with legitimate White House resumes, including several sitting governors and U.S. senators. With little indication that Romney was seriously contemplating a third run, many of his former staffers and donors have already moved on to other potential candidates.

Romney first disclosed his intentions on Friday to a group of New York-area donors that included several Bush supporters. Some later reported being shocked, even frustrated, that Romney made such an announcement during what they thought was a meeting of old friends.

Several members of Romney's senior staff also reported having no idea that such an announcement was coming.

"I was surprised, but not shocked," said Merrill, who had already begun helping Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another prospective 2016 candidate. "I know how much Gov. Romney cares about the country. He has something to offer."