It can be hard to take the idea of a Mitt Romney 2016 presidential run seriously. After all, this is the man who said of losing general election candidates, "They become a loser for life." At least in presidential terms, he had that mostly right.
But what to make of polls continuing to show Romney at the head of the Republican presidential pack a little more than a year before the Iowa caucuses? A Fox News survey released this week found Romney the GOP leader, with 19 percent, ahead of Jeb Bush, who was pretty far back at 10 percent. Everybody else was bunched together behind Bush.
A McClatchy-Marist poll a few days earlier showed a similar result, with Romney leading at 19 percent and Bush at 14 percent. A Quinnipiac poll before that found Romney at 19 percent and Bush at 11 percent.
Many polls don't include Romney in their surveys. But the many that do suggest that, at least for now, Romney is a front-runner, if not the front-runner in the 2016 Republican race.
People in Romney's circle realize that some of his standing in the polls reflects nothing more than name recognition; everybody knows the guy who ran for president in 2012. But they believe there's more to it than that. In discussions this week, they pointed to what they think is a widespread belief among voters, certainly among Republicans, that Romney was right about some key issues in the 2012 campaign.
"I don't really think you can objectively chalk it up to name ID," says one resident of Romneyworld. "People are saying, 'He was right.' I think that has happened in so many different ways that people are looking at it with a fresh perspective." Another Romneyworld insider points to Russia, terrorism, and the economy as areas where Romney was prescient in 2012.
Some of the people who talk with Romney say they specifically avoid the subject of his running in 2016. They still believe he would be a good president, but they don't want to push. "I don't press him on it," says yet another in Romney's circle. "It's a personal decision."
"I don't bring it up," says another. "When we talk, we talk about what's going on in the world."
Some of the donors who supported Romney in 2012 aren't so shy; they're happy to tell Romney they believe he should run again. "He's being encouraged by people every day," says one confidant.
The big mystery, of course, is what Romney himself is thinking. As long as Romney keeps quiet, the outside world will be guessing. But it's probably smart to divide the question into two parts.
The first is what Romney thinks about the actual decision to run or not to run. That, nobody knows. The second is what Romney thinks about who would be the best president. That's not so mysterious. Romney ran in 2012 because he believed he was the best man for the job. There's no indication he has changed his mind.
Those close to Romney don't believe the recent moves by Jeb Bush, who now says he is "actively exploring" a presidential run, will have any effect on Romney. A bigger question will be whether a leader emerges in the GOP field to bring Republican voters together.
"One of the luxuries he has is he doesn't have to necessarily make up his mind and make a decision right now," says one. "He can take stock of the field and how it develops."
So here is a scenario. The Republican race that develops in 2015 is splintered and unhappy, with no candidate gaining the stature and respect needed to make a good nominee. The campaign becomes a protracted fight that diminishes each of its participants. Party leaders look for a savior. Romney is there.
It probably won't happen. And Romney knows — we know he knows because he has said as much — that a political figure who has a halo around his head when he is out of the fray will be just another punching bag if he gets in.
Still, there are the polls. And, for some of those around Romney, the hope. Right now, all they know is that there is a chance — maybe a tiny one, but a chance — of another run.
"I can't really put any kind of prediction on it," says one of the Romneyworld insiders of the possibility that Romney will run again. "I wouldn't say there is zero chance of it. I would definitely not say it is zero."