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If Mitt Romney still hopes to stop Donald Trump and help nominate a more electable Republican, there’s an obvious place and time for him to act: the New Hampshire primary.
He might be the only Republican whose endorsement can change the dynamic of the GOP race. He is popular in that crucial state and could make the difference in boosting one of the four so-called establishment candidates: Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie.
Currently those candidates are running about 8 to 12 percent in New Hampshire. If they end up splitting the conservative-centrist bloc like that in the primary, that would ensure victory for both Trump and Ted Cruz (now No. 2 to Trump in recent national and New Hampshire polls).
Romney has made no secret of his disdain for Trump. And, having been the target of Cruz criticism as well, he must be equally appalled by the prospect of the Texas senator winning his party’s nomination.
Of the four viable candidates Romney might conceivably endorse, who would it be? The answer seems clear from a process of elimination.
When Romney reluctantly took himself out of the running for 2016, he made clear he wasn’t happy with then-frontrunner Bush. He pointedly said: “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. In fact, I expect and hope that to be the case.”
Christie must still be on Romney’s naughty list from his embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey. Some think that really helped Obama and hurt Romney in the final days of the 2012 campaign. Moreover, Romney decided against picking Christie as his running mate -- favoring Paul Ryan instead -- so it’d be difficult for him to argue that Christie was the best choice for president when he didn’t think he was the best choice for vice president.
Kasich probably appeals to Romney as a popular right-center governor of Ohio, a must-win state for a Republican. But Kasich has alienated many conservatives in the presidential debates, and in polls he’s the weakest of the four establishment candidates in New Hampshire.
That leaves Rubio. The Florida senator has attracted a lot of support from Romney backers. He has emerged as the strongest of the establishment candidates, in both New Hampshire and national polls.
If Romney were to endorse Rubio, when would his announcement have the greatest impact?
Rubio would probably want it sooner, rather than later. He’d want it well before the Iowa caucuses. That would give him time to fully tap into Romney’s network of support in New Hampshire, and his fundraising connections throughout the country. It would also give Rubio more time to campaign with Romney in New Hampshire.
As an added bonus, Rubio must hope to get the same kind of all-in support from Romney’s ally, former Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Scott Brown. Brown also has an impressive network of support throughout New Hampshire from his unsuccessful race against U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Romney might be reluctant to endorse before Iowa, wanting to wait and see if Cruz crushes Trump there... and not wanting to be the target of insults from Trump and Cruz for over 30 days. But Romney knows that he has the potential to do what other GOP leaders would love to do, but don’t have the power to effect: Stop Trump, and help nominate someone with a better chance to win the general election and better suited to be president of the United States.
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst and regular contributor to WBUR Politicker.