SALT LAKE CITY — Two of Mitt Romney's closest friends said Tuesday there should be no doubt that he's serious about running for the Senate, but nothing's going to happen until Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, decides whether he's retiring.
"I think at this point, Mitt is just waiting on the senator," said Kem Gardner, a real estate developer who helped talk Romney into taking over the then-troubled 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City nearly two decades ago.
John Miller, another longtime friend who was a top fundraiser for Romney's presidential bids, said he spoke to the 2012 Republican nominee for the White House on Monday about the Senate race.
"Is he going to do it? I think there's a good chance. Could he change his mind? Yes," Miller told KSL. "He's doing what he has to do, and that's give it some serious consideration."
Miller said, however, "Hatch has got to make a move, too."
He declined to say if Romney would still be interested in the race if Hatch chooses to seek re-election to what would be an eighth term.
"That's one question you'd better ask Gov. Romney," Miller said.
Romney, who served as governor of Massachusetts but now calls Utah home, hasn't had much to say about his political future since telling KSL in February that "all doors are open" after mentioning the 2018 Senate race
In September, Romney said "I've got nothing for you on that topic" when the Deseret News asked again about possibly running for Hatch's seat.
Gardner told KSL he believes Hatch wants to finish with tax reform efforts he and other Republicans are leading in Congress before making up his mind about whether to run again after 42 years in the Senate.
Romney, he said, is "just in kind of a holding pattern."
Hatch's decision likely will be made after Congress breaks for the Christmas and New Year's holidays, when "the senator will have a chance to sit down and decide whether he wants to run again, and Mitt will decide what he's doing," he said.
Romney is traveling through the Thanksgiving holidays, which he'll spend with his children in California, Gardner said, and is willing to wait "out of courtesy" so Hatch doesn't feel pressured to announce his plans.
"Clearly, there's a lot of people that are encouraging him to run," Gardner said of Romney. "He's very interested in running. He's very interested in it. But he's not going to crowd Sen. Hatch."
Gardner didn't rule out Romney getting in the race even if Hatch chooses to run again.
"I don't think he wants to get to that point yet," Gardner said. He said Hatch's staff "keeps sending different signals. … So I just don't know. We'll just see how it unfolds."
Miller said Romney is already envisioning what it would take to run for the Senate.
"To consider the option, you have to play out what that's going to look like," he said, including who would lead the campaign. Miller said he hasn't been asked to fill any role but will "do whatever he wants me to."
Clearly, there's a lot of people that are encouraging (Mitt Romney) to run. He's very interested in running. ... But he's not going to crowd Sen. Hatch.
–Kem Gardner, friend of Mitt Romney
Both Gardner and Miller said there's no real hurry to get a race underway.
"Mitt doesn't want a long campaign. He doesn't need to announce in November or December. He's well-known. He doesn't have the usual candidate problems. So he can afford to wait on Sen. Hatch," Gardner said.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, agreed.
"There's no overt pressure on Hatch coming from the Romney camp," Karpowitz said. "They seem to be trying to be as respectful as possible to Sen. Hatch and his decision-making process."
For Romney, that decision is "not terribly urgent," he said. "People know him already. They've had a chance to see him in his presidential run. He's a household name in the state of Utah. That's not going to be true of other candidates."
Karpowitz said Hatch may not be in a rush because "he's in a position of real influence right now, given both his seniority and his experience in terms of dealing with big and complex legislation."
But Hatch, who is Senate president pro-tempore and third in the line of succession to the presidency based on his seniority as well as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, also faces polls showing Utahns want a fresh face in his seat.
Should Hatch attempt to stay in office, something that President Donald Trump and others are seen as encouraging, Karpowitz said Romney could still beat him in a Republican primary.
"That would be one of the most-watched primaries in the nation if that were to occur. I certainly think Mitt Romney would have a chance to win that race. I don't think that's his preference," the political science professor said.
Karpowitz said it's telling that Romney's close friends are openly discussing a possible Romney run.
"I think it's important," he said. "It's another signal that this is more than just talk, that he's serious about the prospect of running."
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