Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, seen talking with… (NBCU Photo Bank via Getty…)
PARK CITY, Utah — Inside the ballroom of a posh resort in Deer Valley, the old Mitt Romney was back. Outlining the biggest challenges facing the country before an intimate gathering of 200 of his biggest donors, the man whose political career was built on his business success was dashing through graphs and charts in a PowerPoint presentation — one tracing the GDPs of the world's largest nations dating back to 1500.
In a departure from some of his recent television interviews, in which he has sharply criticized President Obama, the 2012 Republican nominee did not mention his former rival, according to interviews with guests at the event.
Instead, he told the crowd of chief executives and other leaders gathered for his "experts and enthusiasts" conference that he wanted to keep the focus on ideas, not politics, and brainstorm about how this close-knit network of donors could use its influence and financial muscle to effect policy change on a range of issues including the federal deficit and education. At the end of the second day of the meeting, Mark DeMoss, a close confidant of Romney, said there hadn't "been one sentence about what would be good for the Republican Party."
Unclear, too, was what Romney's next act might look like: a biannual gathering of big thinkers? A foundation? A nonprofit political committee?
He is in a different position than other recent nominees who lost — Sens. John McCain and John F. Kerry were able to go back to the Senate and work from that platform. But Romney has returned to his charity work and to business, taking an advisory role at a private equity firm that was cofounded by his son Tagg and his former finance chairman, Spencer Zwick.
Beth Myers, who organized the gathering with Zwick at Romney's direction, said the former candidate still had time to work through exactly what his role would look like. She noted that the gathering in Deer Valley was the first time since the election that he had brought all of his friends and top donors together.
"He did it in a way that's very Mitt," said Myers, who was Romney's chief of staff when he was governor of Massachusetts.
"He brought everyone together to talk about ideas, to be forward-looking, to talk about issues that are important to him and the people of America, and I think that gives you a sense of what he will be doing going forward."
"We wanted it to be bipartisan," she added of the conference, and "we wanted to hear ideas not just from one narrow band where everyone shakes their head, but he wanted to have people who would provoke thinking."
In his introduction earlier this week, Romney gave the group a list of more than 20 policy areas and asked them to rank which were most important. His team, data-driven as always, crunched the numbers after getting responses from the guests. Topping the list of priorities: deficits and debt, spurring growth in the private sector, education, immigration reform and military leadership. Polarizing social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage ranked at the bottom of the list for the group of 200.
DeMoss, who had dinner with Romney and wife Ann on the night of Obama's second inauguration, said he believed that Romney was still working through what role he should take on the policy front. DeMoss and many others cited examples like that of President Clinton, who has embraced a role as a sort of elder statesman — albeit after two presidential wins, not losses.
Romney "just wants to see what people's appetite is for trying to do something significant," said DeMoss, who said he could imagine the group meeting several times a year. "There's no evidence he's come here with a strategy that he wants people to get behind. I really sense he's convening to find out what people's appetite is for engaging and heavy lifting."
Since his defeat, Romney has said in interviews that he does not expect to drive the agenda for Republicans as they look ahead to 2016. And in Park City, he seemed determined to act more as a consigliere to all the candidates, introducing them to his donors and inviting the donors to evaluate whom they might get behind.
Though the Romneys have made no secret of their affection for Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Romney's former running mate, the couple spent significant time with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and repaired to the terrace late Thursday with another fellow Republican, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for a 45-minute chat. Several guests said Romney had urged Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to come to the gathering, but Rubio declined.
Romney confirmed that he would not run again, partly because his wife believed two presidential races were enough. As he joked to one donor, if he ran again, it would be as a bachelor.