I've been with Mitt for a long time so it's difficult, but I am listening and considering opportunities with other campaigns. I don't want to drag this out. My hope is to come to a final decision here in the very near future. —Jim Merrill, Romney's top New Hampshire aide
WASHINGTON — Spencer Zwick may be the most sought after man in Republican politics.
A Boston-based venture capitalist who led the operation that raised almost half a billion dollars for Mitt Romney's last presidential campaign, Zwick has spoken with five Republican presidential prospects — in person or by phone — in the week since Romney announced he would not make a third run for the White House.
Deeply disappointed by Romney's decision, Zwick says he's not in a rush to join another campaign. But he will, and soon, along with a small group of former Romney aides who are the subject of an intense chase among the crowded 2016 Republican field for some of the nation's top political talent.
"I think there are some interesting candidates out there," Zwick told The Associated Press. "I'm going to watch that with great interest. And at some point, I'll be working for one of them."
In the past week, Zwick has heard directly from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The suitors represent most of the top tier of likely Republican contenders, a group that in most cases spent the past several months building political teams and national finance operations.
But Romney's exit escalated the behind-the-scenes scramble for his senior team, who were largely waiting on his final decision about the race before entertaining offers from others.
Lanhee Chen, Romney's chief policy adviser in 2012, has been in touch with at least eight prospective campaigns — with follow up meetings set for the coming weeks.
"It's likely that I will get involved in the primary," said Chen. "I just haven't figured out for whom or in what capacity."
Other former Romney aides contacted by multiple campaigns include Eric Fehrnstrom and Beth Myers, strategists at the heart of Romney's inner circle, as well as political director Rich Beeson, deputy campaign manager Katie Packer Gage, general counsel Katie Biber Chen, finance director Mason Fink, digital director Zac Moffatt and director of advance Will Ritter.
"Gov. Romney's decision gives us the chance to continue the conversations we're having with the potential 2016 campaigns," said Ritter, now a partner in a Republican advertising firm. "It will be a matter of weeks, not months, before the bulk of the best operatives are signed up."
Those on the free-agent list report calling each other furiously in recent days to share information and insight about which candidate has the strongest chance to emerge from the GOP's crowded field of White House prospects. They are considering multiple factors as they eye new employers, although a clear path to victory is paramount.
"I want to win, first and foremost," Zwick said.
"To win the presidency, I feel like you almost have to catch lightning in a bottle," he said. "So as I look at the field, I say, 'Who can do that? Who is the right candidate for this time?'"
Bush's campaign is a likely landing spot for many Romney loyalists, although others acknowledge having serious discussions with Christie, Walker, Rubio and Paul. Romney's team is largely bypassing the more conservative candidates, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, while some continue to harbor ill will toward Christie, whom they blame for not helping Romney enough in the closing days of the 2012 campaign as Superstorm Sandy ravaged the New Jersey coast.
Former Romney donors began moving aggressively in Bush's direction before he formally bowed out of the 2016 contest, although Romney's most loyal aides were less willing to defect while there was still a chance he would launch a third bid. One exception is Romney's longtime Iowa operative, David Kochel, who committed to Bush just before Romney got out of the race last week.
Romney's top New Hampshire aide, Jim Merrill, said his phone, text and email lines started to "pop pretty actively" after the announcement.
"I've been with Mitt for a long time so it's difficult, but I am listening and considering opportunities with other campaigns," he said. "I don't want to drag this out. My hope is to come to a final decision here in the very near future."
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