SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney's interest in running for the Senate appears to be intensifying, even though Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has shown no sign he's decided to retire.
"Everyone is waiting for him to make that decision," said Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "Even Mitt Romney is waiting for that decision, out of an abundance of respect for the career Sen. Hatch has had."
But Perry said that hasn't stopped the 2012 GOP presidential nominee from openly discussing a possible Senate run next year.
A story posted Friday in Politico reported Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who now calls Utah home, is reaching out to Utah power brokers and making other moves toward getting in the race.
"Mitt Romney is talking to influential people within the state and without the state. One of those influential people is Sen. Hatch himself. These discussions are occurring. It's no secret to any of us or to Sen. Hatch," Perry said, calling the report accurate.
It comes as Hatch is taking the lead in GOP tax reform efforts in Congress and follows President Donald Trump saying he has approved reducing the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments "for you, Orrin."
Trump and his supporters are trying to make it clear to Hatch that they don't want to see him replaced by Romney, one of the president's harshest critics during last year's campaign, Perry said.
Still, polls have shown Utah voters don't want the senator first elected in 1976 to run again, despite the power he has in Washington as head of the Senate Finance Committee and as Senate president pro-tempore, third in line to the presidency.
Hatch isn't going to be pushed into anything, Perry said.
"No one is going to make the decision for him. If he decides he wants to go, no one is going to talk him out of it. There are many very influential people in Washington, D.C., that call him every single day telling him they want him to stay," Perry said.
And if Hatch ends up staying, he said the senator could defy the polls.
"You just can never count him out," Perry said. "No poll can capture how fiercely he campaigns."
Hatch's spokesman, Matt Whitlock, said in a statement that the senator remains undecided about seeking another term.
"Nothing has changed. Sen. Hatch is in the middle of a long-anticipated fight to fix our broken tax code for families in Utah and has not made a final decision about the next election," Whitlock said, adding that Hatch still plans to decide by the end of the year.
He said Hatch "would politely invite our friends in the media to consider spending more time covering the substantial things he is accomplishing and less time rewriting speculative anonymously sourced election stories."
Some supporters of having Romney as a senator aren't waiting for Hatch.
Sen. Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, said Friday he's kicking off a grass-roots effort to encourage Romney to get in the race.
Hemmert, who has formed a federal "Recruit Romney" super political action committee, is inviting Utahns to sign a petition online at recruitromney.com and attend an event at the state Capitol rotunda at 2:30 p.m. Monday.
"I know he's mulling this over. Everyone knows," said Hemmert, a member of Romney's 2012 presidential campaign's fundraising team in Utah. But he said the effort isn't intended to prod Hatch into making a decision.
"It's not about Hatch. It really isn't," the state senator said. "It's not coming from 'Camp Romney.' It's not part of a campaign. I guess the hope is to have Utahns self-mobilize."
But he was also careful Friday to say a Romney run depends on Hatch retiring.
"What I would like to do is demonstrate to Gov. Romney that if he does decide to retire, and if you decide to run, there is a grass-roots support network in Utah that wants you," the state senator said.
Among whom Hemmert calls the movers and shakers of Utah politics, Romney is seen as getting ready for a Senate run.
"The narrative has changed when you talk to those people," he said. "Before, it was highly unlikely but possible. Now, I think that narrative has gone to more likely than not and maybe even shifted more into, 'Yeah, he's going to run.'"
Romney is raising his public profile, Hemmert said, by tweeting more and attending more events, including last week's Sutherland Institute gala featuring conservative commentator Bill Kristol.
Romney shared a table with former Gov. Mike Leavitt, according to Politico, and had a private conversation with Kristol, who declined to discuss the topic of chat.
But, he said, “assuming Sen. Hatch retires, I hope Mitt runs. He'd be a very good senator," Politico reported.
Kristol, founder and editor-at-large of the Weekly Standard, talked with Romney in May 2016 about making an independent third-party bid for president against Trump, then the Republican Party's presumptive nominee.
Kristol told the Deseret News editorial board that Romney in the Senate "would be a big deal" in terms of countering the Trump administration. He said a statesman like Romney would "provide guidance and almost cover, in a way."
While Romney has made himself more visible, he has had little to say about running for Hatch's seat. In February, he brought up the Senate race, telling the Deseret News "all doors are open," but has kept quiet since about his intentions.
Hatch said a month later that he would consider not seeking re-election if he "could get a really outstanding person to run," calling Romney a "perfect" successor "who would represent Utah very, very well."