On a ski lift high above the powdery slopes of Deer Valley, Utah, Mitt Romney made it clear: His quest for the White House, which had dominated nearly a decade of his life, was coming to a close.
In a talk with his eldest son, Tagg, between runs down the mountain on Monday, Mr. Romney, 67, said he had all but decided against a third bid for the White House.
The conversation, according to a person familiar with it, came after days of increasingly gloomy news reached the Romney family.
Donors who supported him last time refused to commit to his campaign. Key operatives were signing up with former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. The Republican establishment that lifted Mr. Romney to the nomination in 2012 in the face of scrappy opposition had moved on.
The news on Friday that Mr. Romney would opt out of the race revealed as much about the party in 2015 as it did about the former Massachusetts governor’s weaknesses as a candidate. Republican leaders, especially the party’s wealthiest donors, are in an impatient and determined mood. They are eager to turn to a new face they believe can defeat what they anticipate will be a strong, well-funded Democratic opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“People were much more excited about Jeb than Mitt,” said Ron Gidwitz, a Chicago financier who helped raise millions for Mr. Romney and allied groups in 2012. “Mitt ran twice before unsuccessfully. He’s a great guy. But winning is everything in this business.”
Mr. Romney’s decision not to run frees up scores of Republican establishment donors and campaign operatives, and sets off an intense battle for their support. A key question, given the early strength demonstrated by Mr. Bush and his network, is whether there is room for a candidate of similar policy views, such as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey or Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, to emerge. So far, Mr. Bush has fared well among the party’s moneyed donor class, but its grass-roots activists, crucial to the early nominating states, have yet to coalesce around any candidate in a still evolving field.
Mr. Romney’s departure could also deprive Democrats of what they had hoped: a protracted and damaging confrontation between Mr. Bush and Mr. Romney — and the prospect of facing off again against Mr. Romney, who they believe would be just as vulnerable as he was in 2012.
The campaign to deny Mr. Romney another chance began almost immediately after he mused to donors at a Friday get-together in New York City on Jan. 9 that he was open to the possibility of another run. By that Sunday afternoon, William Oberndorf, a prominent California investor who supported Mr. Romney in both of his previous presidential campaigns, had emailed a group of 52 powerful Republicans, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, the investor Charles Schwab, Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois and the Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos with a blunt message: we need to support someone else.
Mr. Oberndorf wrote: “We are fortunate in Jeb Bush to have an extremely talented and able candidate who, I believe, has a far better prospect of winning a general election than Mitt. Moreover, Mitt has now run twice and has had his chance to be president. It is now time to cede the field to others.”
Mr. Oberndorf requested that those on the email contact Mr. Romney’s longtime finance chief, Spencer Zwick, to make it clear that they did not want Mr. Romney to run again. And many of them did, Mr. Oberndorf said in an interview on Friday.
“Of everybody I contacted, I only heard from one person who thought Mitt should give it another shot,” said Mr. Oberndorf. In the weeks after he expressed renewed interest in running, Mr. Romney contacted some of his most loyal supporters. But often, he found Mr. Bush had gotten there already.
The former Massachusetts governor called Eric Tanenblatt, an Atlanta lobbyist, who reminded him they had talked the previous month and that Mr. Tanenblatt was supporting Mr. Bush.
It was a recurring theme: Mr. Romney’s supporters had taken him at his word when he had said repeatedly after 2012 that he would not run again.
Mr. Romney was losing important backers, including the New York City hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, and in the gossipy universe of wealthy Republicans, word was spreading about the defections. Robert Pence, a Northern Virginia developer and major contributor to Mr. Romney, appeared at a fund-raiser in Virginia for Mr. Bush last week. Mr. Tanenblatt helped organize an event for Mr. Bush in Atlanta this week.
Mr. Bush’s strategy, mainly behind the scenes, was smooth and effective, as he reached out to potential supporters, mixing wonky ideas with personal charm. In a December telephone call with Joe Craft and Kelly Knight, the husband and wife who are coveted contributors in Kentucky, Mr. Bush offered his views on business and education and seemed to have all the time in the world for the couple, who raised millions for Mr. Romney’s 2012 candidacy. And, in a follow-up email, he flattered the pair, who are also the largest financial boosters of the University of Kentucky basketball program, with his careful attention to their passion.
“Saw the Wildcats did pretty well on Saturday,” Mr. Bush wrote, after Kentucky thrashed UCLA by nearly 40 points. “Congrats.”
The former Florida governor’s supporters were not as gentle as they made the case to Mr. Romney’s former backers. They argued that, because of his awkward persona and business background, Mr. Romney could not win a general election, had no rationale for a third campaign and would not be as strong as Mr. Bush in such battleground states as Florida and Colorado.
On Jan. 23, about two dozen of his advisers gathered in Boston for a cleareyed assessment of Mr. Romney’s challenges. “It was, ‘Let’s cut the cheerleading rah-rah and talk about what it is that you know and what it is that you’re hearing,’ ” said someone with knowledge of the meeting, speaking anonymously to talk about a private discussion. “Could this thing get going again?”
Mr. Zwick said he felt confident that Mr. Romney could raise the $50 million to $100 million necessary for a primary, but the softening support among contributors emerged as a concern. Even if he prevailed in a primary, he would be battered and bruised by the general election. And they puzzled over how to appease donors, still frustrated from the stumbling 2012 campaign, who were demanding a new message and a shake-up of advisers.
On Sunday, Mr. Zwick flew to Utah and delivered the message to Mr. Romney: Yes, the team believed Mr. Romney had a path to the nomination, but he faced far more challenges than in 2012, and needed to make up his mind this week. By that point, Mr. Romney and his wife Ann had already decided against another bid, but wanted to “sit with it for a few days to make sure.” By Thursday night, Mr. Romney was ready, phoning his closest friends, family and advisers to tell them what he would make public the following morning: He would not run.
But by then it was clear the political world was already moving on. In a particularly stinging blow, David Kochel, who oversaw Mr. Romney’s Iowa caucus campaigns in 2008 and 2012, had signed on to manage Mr. Bush’s campaign. That added to the bitter feeling of Mr. Romney’s inner circle toward the Bush operation.
For the Romney family, it meant the end of a dream that had consumed Mr. Romney since he was elected governor of Massachusetts and that had eluded his father over a generation earlier.
“There’s a deep sense of both sadness and relief,” Tagg Romney said in a telephone interview Friday. “Sadness that he won’t be president, but relief that we will be able to lead private lives.”
Source: The New York Times