Is Mitt Romney the GOP’s best hope?

David Shribman

Richard Nixon lost the presidency in 1960, was pilloried in his own party for losing to so inexperienced an opponent as John F. Kennedy and eight years later was elected to the White House.

Ronald Reagan tried twice, in 1968 and 1976, and didn’t win the Republican nomination until 1980, when he was elected president.

If you and I know that, then surely Mitt Romney does, too — and there are growing signs that Romney, fortified by the conviction that he was right more often than he was wrong in his campaign against a president who now suffers from plunging public support, may be looking at a third presidential race as well.

This is not merely musings for a September morning. Nationally regarded Republican political operatives — among the party’s shrewdest and most experienced analysts, mostly of the breed who recoil at the thought of Rand Paul of Kentucky or Ted Cruz of Texas heading the GOP ticket — are talking privately of the appeal Romney might have in 2016.

If Obama continues to record poor poll results — and if increasing numbers of Americans remind the former Massachusetts governor that he was right about Russia and the economy, if the Republican insurgents look as though they will split the primary vote, and if former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida does not mount a campaign of his own, then Romney could emerge as a powerful contender.

A Romney campaign would be all the more formidable in the unlikely event that former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton does not run for president.

A Republican veteran of nine presidential campaigns told me, in reference to the retiring governor of Maryland, a Democrat: “Mitt Romney versus Martin O’Malley wouldn’t be close.”

The potential Romney surge would be fueled by his involvement in midterm congressional and gubernatorial contests this autumn.

Several top Republican operatives say GOP officials may supply Romney, one of the most-requested surrogate campaigners in the country, with a plane to campaign for Republican candidates.

That sort of political scut work has paid dividends before. Nixon was considered politically dead after losing the White House in 1960 and then being defeated in the California gubernatorial race two years later.

It was after that loss to Edmund G. Brown Sr. that the former vice president, in his you-won’t-have-Nixon-to-kick-around-anymore remarks, declared that he had given his last press conference and would be withdrawing from politics.

By 1966, Nixon was perhaps the most prominent and ardent Republican surrogate campaigner in American political history.

“1966 is very important in understanding Nixon’s re-emergence because it was an off-year congressional campaign period where the spotlight was really on Nixon,” recalled Dwight Chapin, a veteran Nixon hand who became White House appointments secretary, in an oral-history interview for the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Nixon was an avid student of American politics and understood that his 1960 loss was in part a reflection of the overall weakness of his party — a weakness that only grew after Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona lost the 1964 election in a landslide.

Every presidential race has its own contours and rhythms, and Nixon’s 1966 gambit hasn’t been repeated on that scale by any candidate in nearly a half century, with one single exception: Ronald Reagan.

The only political figure in a position to repeat it this time around is Romney.

The key to the 2016 race may be whether he chooses to do so.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.