Today, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush are meeting in Utah, for what's been billed as a major face-off between two top 2016 presidential contenders. Bush supporters are hoping that it ends with Romney backing off from a third presidential run — and believe such a move would clear the way for Bush to win the nomination as the establishment favorite.
Yet a Romney campaign might not be as bad as it seems for the former Florida governor. Because if Romney does in fact bow out, money and press attention could be freed up for a "new blood" challenger — one who could be a much more significant threat to Bush in the long run as he tries to convince his party he's a face for change.
Today's meeting — scheduled by Bush before Romney started floating his own bid, and first reported by the New York Times' Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman — might not have any clear outcome. But if Romney does opt against another bid, here's why, despite the conventional wisdom, it could actually end up hurting Bush.
Romney's absence would make it easier for a new face to get attention
The belief that Romney is a threat to Bush makes sense. The two men are competing for similar supporters and donors, since they're both trying to occupy the "establishment lane." And Bush's status as the apparent frontrunner would be imperiled if the man who won the nomination last time jumped in.
But a race without Romney is one where Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, or other candidates would have a much easier time getting the attention of the press or voters.
In a crowded primary field — as 2016's looks to be — less-known candidates face a huge challenge. Candidates who are familiar and look formidable usually raise the most money and get the most media coverage. Voters will get the message that they are the ones who matter — and debate watchers will make sure to pay attention most closely when they're speaking.
If Bush and Romney both run, they will be those candidates. Both would be covered as the top two contenders, and less-known challengers will struggle to distinguish themselves.
However, if only Bush runs, it would create an opening for another rival, as the mantle for who will be the main alternative to Bush will be up for grabs. A press in search of conflict and an interesting story will begin trying to fill that hole, giving the less-known challengers more attention. The result: That person will be new and exciting to voters, rather than a retread.
Walker and Christie would benefit most from Romney's absence
Take Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, already the thinking man's choice for a dark horse. Walker won the hearts of many conservative donors by taking on unions in Wisconsin, and winning three tough and expensive elections in five years in a blue state. He's an evangelical Christian, and his record contains no major heresies that would turn off any element of the party. But his main weakness is that his lack of charisma could make it difficult for him to stand out in a crowded field. So, the fewer high-profile candidates there are, the better Walker's chances may be to establish himself as the main Bush alternative.
There's also New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who built a donor network as head of the Republican Governors Association in 2014 and hopes to win establishment support. Christie has been sidelined somewhat by Jeb and Romney's recent moves. It's unclear how much electoral appeal Christie retains post-Bridgegate, and it does seem that Bush has supplanted him as the establishment favorite. But New Hampshire voters opted for a pugnacious challenger to a Bush during McCain's first presidential run in 2000. And if Romney — who won New Hampshire in 2012 — is out, Christie will have a better chance of winning that key early state, and becoming the alternative to whoever wins Iowa (whether it's Jeb or someone else).
Finally, there's the Rand Paul factor — Romney's presence in the field might actually help Paul, rather than a more formidable challenger, win an early state. That's because last time around, Rand's father Ron Paul had a dedicated core of supporters (he won 21 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses and 22 percent in New Hampshire) — and the more mainstream Rand could build on that support. If the establishment vote is split among several candidates, Paul could win a key early state with a plurality. Then, many in the party unhappy with Paul's foreign policy views would have an incentive to coalesce behind Bush to stop his ascent — in a way they wouldn't try to stop Walker or Christie.
Romney and Bush have very similar weaknesses
To party insiders, long primary battles feel quite unpleasant — and, perhaps more importantly, they're quite expensive. But there's little evidence that they hurt the eventual nominee's chances in the general election. Despite the awkward 2012 primary spectacle, Romney performed better than most other Republicans that fall. And of course, the famously protracted Obama-Clinton contest of 2008 seemed to have no negative impact whatsoever on Democratic prospects.
But Jeb Bush will face a competitive contest regardless, because he's a flawed candidate with several key weaknesses. He is distrusted by many conservatives. Due to his last name, he's associated with the failure of his brother's administration. And he'd have difficulty making a "change" argument against new blood in the primary, or against Hillary Clinton in the general.
Luckily for Bush, Romney shares all of these weaknesses. Conservatives never trusted him, his failure to win in 2012 remains fresh, and a third Romney run wouldn't be much of a change. So if Bush believes he can outcompete Romney for support among the GOP establishment — as appears to be happening — and that he's a more appealing candidate to voters, he should welcome a Romney bid. It could well stave off something worse.