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Washington — Mitt Romney told supporters Friday he is not running for president again in 2016, a move that could put Michigan front and center in the race to win the Republican nomination next year.

The former Massachusetts governor and Detroit native, who was the GOP nominee in 2012, told supporters on a conference call that "after putting considerable thought into making another run for president, I've decided it is best to give other leaders in the party the opportunity to become our next nominee," according to the call aired on C-SPAN.

Michigan is an early state in the presidential primary season and an early bellwether of support among industrial states in the Midwest. Party leaders are trying to move the 2016 primary from late February to the third week in March.

Ron Weiser, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman, said Friday it's unclear where Michigan donors will take their money after Romney — the son of a former Michigan governor and auto executive, George Romney — decided against a third bid for the White House.

"I believe that many financial supporters still want to get a clear picture of who is running before they make commitments," said Weiser, a retired real estate developer from Ann Arbor. "Some people will stay on the sidelines all the way through the primary or until it becomes clear who is going to be the leading candidate. Right now it's pretty foggy."

Romney's absence in the primary breaks up old allegiances to his family, particularly in southeast Michigan, said Greg McNeilly, a Republican political strategist from Grand Rapids who has worked with the DeVos family — large GOP donors.

"This frees donors up and makes thing less complicated for those other top candidates," McNeilly said. "That's not necessarily the same as the primary voter, but the first part of the primary is (winning) donors."

The crowded field of potential 2016 GOP candidates includes former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

But East Lansing-based Republican consultant Steve Mitchell said Bush should benefit from Romney's decision. Bush is scheduled to speak Wednesday at the Detroit Economic Club and was last in Michigan on Oct. 13 to campaign for Gov. Rick Snyder and other state Republicans, making stops in Troy, Grand Rapids and Lansing.

Romney and Bush "appeal to the same sort of audience," said Mitchell, who is also a pollster. "They are considered to be less conservative than some of the other potential candidates, although they would disagree. They both have the same financial backers. This gives Jeb Bush a big advantage in Michigan and around the country."

Romney's decision came after reports that several of his past major fundraisers and donors in key states had defected to Bush, including his former top aide in Iowa.

Romney said on the call he was convinced he could win and could raise enough money "but fully realize it would have been a difficult test and a hard fight."

"I believe that one of our next generation of Republican leaders, one who may not be as well-known as I am today, one who has not yet taken their message across the country, one who is just getting started, may well emerge as being better able to defeat the Democrat nominee," Romney said.

Dennis Lennox, a Michigan-based public affairs consultant, pointed to Romney's call for a new leader to emerge as a reason to question whether Romney loyalists and donors will rally around Bush or Christie.

"Romney's statement adds new oomph to Scott Walker's candidacy," Lennox said.

Walker survived a recall election and was re-elected in November after passing laws that restricted the collective bargaining rights of most public-sector unions.

Snyder, the highest-ranking statewide elected Republican official, said Monday it would be "premature" to endorse Romney, saying only that someone with gubernatorial experience would make a good president.

Michigan's GOP primary is set for Feb. 23 but the state Legislature is considering a bill to move the date to March 15 to avoid being penalized by national party leaders.

In 2012, the Republican National Committee initially penalized Michigan Republicans with fewer delegates for holding a primary in February. All of the Michigan delegates were eventually seated at the August 2012 Republican nominating convention.

But some Republicans are quietly talking about defying the RNC again and holding a primary on Feb. 23. Others want to join forces with other Midwest states and hold the primary on March 1 or March 8, creating a "Super Tuesday" primary that could effectively decide the nominee if the candidates split some of the early primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

Romney's departure from the presidential primary field also may make it easier for his niece, Ronna Romney McDaniel, to become state party chair and run an impartial primary without criticism that she would have faced with her uncle in the race, McNeilly said.

Romney McDaniel is the front-runner to succeed outgoing Michigan Republican Party chairman Bobby Schostak at the Feb. 21 state convention.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com

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