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The case for a Romney redux in 2016

Mitt Romney
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Mitt Romney

This reporter wrote six months ago—before the latest round of speculation—about the real possibility that Mitt Romney could run for president again in 2016 under an unlikely but not impossible set of circumstances.

Since that initial item, a Romney run has become more likely and more plausible, though it is very far from a certainty.

This week, Romney, the hottest GOP draw in the midterms, is back on the campaign trail, this time with Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst in one of the tightest races in the country. Contrast that with Romney's 2012 foe, President Barack Obama, who will campaign this week in the deep-blue state of Connecticut for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Obama has been largely benched by Democrats in tight races who want nothing to do with his dismal approval ratings, especially on the economy, which voters consider the top issue in the midterms.

It's not unusual for president's in their sixth year to lose political appeal (George W. Bush certainly did). But Obama is taking the phenomena to new lows, particularly compared to his most recent Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, who enjoyed an approval rating of 65 percent ahead of the 1998 midterms in which his party defied historic trends and gained seats in Congress.

By the end of 1998, Clinton's approval rating was 73 percent having risen consistently along with the economy and in spite of the GOP House of Representatives impeaching him over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

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Obama has moved in the opposite direction, with his approval rating now mired at 43 percent despite the economy growing around 3 percent, better than much of the Western world and the jobless rate down to 5.9 percent.

As White House Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Jason Furman said over the weekend at the Institute for International Finance annual meeting, Obama has been unable to overcome the stagnation in American incomes. "The typical household has an income lower today than it was 15 years ago," Furman said.

Romney, by contrast, has enjoyed a renaissance in popularity among voters who in polls tend to show remorse over not electing him in 2012. Such backward-looking polls are of little value, of course. And it's a lot harder to be president than to be a vessel for people's hopes of what might have been.

But polls about hypothetical 2016 matchups do matter, and Romney fares very well in those as well.

In the critical swing state of Iowa, Romney was the only Republican to top likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical 2016 matchup, according to the most recent Des Moines Register poll. Clinton led all other potential GOP aspirants in the poll, including Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Sen. Rand Paul of Texas, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

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The poll highlights the likelihood that Republicans will need to nominate a powerhouse with national appeal to take on Clinton, who is widely expected to announce early next year, unless Democrats suffer big losses next month, in which case the former secretary of state may come under pressure to get in the race sooner to help the party change the subject from midterm defeats.

There remains a good chance that Jeb Bush could get in the presidential race in which case a Romney run would be less likely. Romney would also likely stay out if it appeared that Christie was catching fire with both the establishment and conservative base of the GOP.

But there are signs that that is not happening, at least not yet. The New York Times reported Monday that conservative, evangelical Republicans are still deeply distrustful of Christie despite the governor's strong pro-life, anti-gay marriage stances.

Establishment Republicans on Wall Street and in Washington meanwhile are not sold on Christie as the best choice to take on Clinton and many still hope for either Bush or Romney. After those two, the name most often mentioned remains that of Paul Ryan, who has said he would defer should Romney decide to get in the race.

Romney, for his part, continues to say in interviews that he is not running and does not plan to run and does not have anything new to say on the subject.

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But these formulations still do not include declaratives like "I will not run under any circumstances."

Because under certain circumstances, Romney would absolutely run, friends and former campaign staffers uniformly say. Age would not be an issue, as Romney is just a few months older than Clinton. And the desire is still there, people who know Romney say. The former Massachusetts governor believes his positions on foreign policy and economic growth have been largely vindicated by the experience of the last two years.

So if Jeb Bush does not run and Christie fails to catch fire, do not discount the possibility of a Romney redux in 2016.

—By Ben White. White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.