Mitt Romney’s announcement Friday that he will not run for president a third time has reset the budding 2016 field – with political strategists saying his exit could position Jeb Bush as establishment favorite while helping him assemble a campaign team in key early-voting states.
At the same time, the former Florida governor could become an even bigger target for party conservatives who criticize both Bush and Romney as too moderate; now, only Bush remains.
“Unless [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie can show he is more viable than he has demonstrated at this point, we are going to have one establishment candidate versus an entire conservative field,” Steve Deace, a syndicated conservative radio talk show host based in Iowa, told FoxNews.com.
Being the “establishment” candidate would have its upsides.
Now, veteran operatives who were torn between Bush and Romney will be free to put their energies into the Bush camp, should he decide to run. Had Romney run, both men would be vying for the same resources, including Wall Street money and institutional party support.
“This frees up any uncertainty for campaign funders who just did not know what to do between Jeb and Mitt – they no longer have that conundrum,” one Republican strategist, who did not want to be named, told FoxNews.com. “Plus there is a whole pool of conservative establishment voters who would have been torn between [them].
“It doesn’t mean that they will automatically shift to Bush, but he will have a greater ability now to pick [those voters] up.”
Even before Romney’s announcement, Bush was starting to pick up members of Romney’s old gang.
On Thursday, Bush’s team confirmed that Romney’s former senior Iowa adviser, David Kochel, had signed on as a senior strategist for Bush’s newly launched Right to Rise PAC.
Reports also emerged that former Romney donors were moving toward Bush, and folks who ran the ground games in key primary states in 2012 were no longer as enthusiastic. Doubts lingered over whether he could manage a third campaign and win.
Bush also flew out to Utah for a private meeting with Romney last week.
“I will give [the establishment] credit,” Deace said. “They were headed for an all-out self-immolation with both Romney and Bush running. So Jeb goes out on a plane and basically knee-caps Romney in public.”
Romney didn’t quite frame it that way on Friday. In a conference call with supporters, only three weeks after he surprised donors by announcing he was weighing a run, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee said he was out.
Romney said he believes that he could win the nomination, and that he would have enough funding and support.
But he said it would have been a "difficult test and a hard fight." He said he did not want to “make it more difficult for someone else to emerge who may have a better chance of” becoming president.
On the heels of the announcement, Romney planned to have dinner with Christie Friday night.
Along with Christie, plenty of other potential GOP candidates could compete with Bush for the big donors and the high-profile strategists, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and others.
But there are signs Bush – after avoiding a big conservative summit in Des Moines last weekend that Christie attended -- is ready to make the foray into the first-in-the-nation caucus state in a big way. Those caucuses are now one year away.
Charlie Szold, communications director of the Iowa Republican Party, told Fox News that Bush has called the chairman of the Iowa GOP, and “indicated he's interested in playing here in Iowa.”
"I would say, clearly, Governor Bush hiring David Kochel is a good indication he's interested in Iowa and wants to participate actively in this process,” Szold said. “Kochel has been a good friend to Iowa for many years and we're excited to have him playing such an important role in a presidential election."
Bill Whalen, political analyst at the Hoover Institution, said Romney’s exit should send a signal to Bush to get his campaign, if that is what he intends, in full gear.
“I think the lesson for Jeb Bush is to get in early and start staking out positions,” he said. “It’s probably time to stop playing footsie. Start collecting money and support and force the rest of the field to react.”
The conservative base is starting to react, too, said Whalen, who noted that “now there is one less person to beat up and now the focus is on Bush.”
Deace said Romney’s decision not to run “clearly puts a bigger bull’s-eye on [Bush’s] back,” but at the same time, he said, conservatives had hoped that Romney and Bush were going to have to fight it out a bit longer. Right now, there is a herd of potential candidates playing to the conservative base -- including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz -- who would have to wrestle each other for the support of the base come primary time.
Whalen said one shouldn’t count out a “mainstream runoff,” either. “There is a large pool of money in Republican circles… they are looking for the candidate who is the most capable of winning 270 electoral votes,” he said, adding: “While Bush would be the front-runner, he would not be the overwhelming front-runner.”
He said Romney’s exit has created an “opening” for Christie, Rubio and even Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
If Romney’s own words Friday are any indication, he is not banking on Bush either:
“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.”
Fox News’ Lauren Blanchardcontributed to this report.