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PARK CITY — Former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Friday he is not considering another run despite talk about drafting him into the race during his annual retreat for his contributors that includes White House hopefuls.
"I think people make a lot of compliments to make us all feel good, and it's very nice and heartening to have people say such generous things, but I'm not running and they know it," Romney told reporters at the E2 Summit set to end Saturday.
Even before being asked about a possible third bid for the White House, Romney joked with reporters he recognized from his campaign that the press briefing was "a flashback. But this is the last one."
While the talk at the retreat about drafting Romney was informal, Utah GOP Chairman James Evans and some big Romney supporters have already started organizing what they say will be a national effort to get him in the race.
Romney said he sees his role now as trying to push the GOP "and our nominees toward positions that I think are the most effective for the country. I want to be one of the voices" on issues of significance.
But the former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah said he recognizes he is not the only voice attempting to influence the direction of the Republican Party after his 2012 defeat to President Barack Obama.
"Nor am I the most effective voice having lost and not in office," Romney said. "You want to have influence. I’d like to continue to have influence in my party and my country. But I recognize that’s of a limited nature."
Romney said he is still considering which Republican he'll support in 2016.
"I'm going to have to wait and listen to their views," Romney said. He said he brought in candidates who represent "different viewpoints on a whole series of issues. But they're not the full list."
It is the failing of White House leadership that concerns me, and that must change. I lost the election, but I, and we, will continue to fight.
The GOP contenders at the retreat include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Wisconsin Sen. Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate in 2012.
"I don't have a choice," Romney said. "I'm not pulling in anyone's direction. I've invited a broad array here in part to let people hear these different voices and draw their own conclusions."
Participants in the three-day annual event will also hear from a Democrat weighing a presidential run, former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who said he became close to Romney when both were governors visiting war zones in the Middle East.
"I respect him a great deal," Schweitzer told reporters. He said if Romney were to run again in 2016, "he'd be kind of a giant in a field of midgets."
Advice for the hopefuls
Romney offered some advice for the GOP's 2016 hopefuls in a speech that also harshly criticized President Barack Obama's foreign policy, made earlier Friday to some 300 business and political leaders invited to the largely private retreat.
"I certainly hope our party will continue to be the party that stands for freedom, for strength, for equal opportunity, for prosperity for anyone who's willing to work for it," Romney said.
After outlining the Democratic president's shortcomings around the world, Romney urged Republicans considering a run for the White House to "be committed to real leadership in the free world. I am convinced America is not destined to decline."
One of the would-be 2016 candidates, Ryan, endorsed Romney's speech.
"What Mitt said," Ryan told reporters.
Romney said he doesn't know what Obama stands for. "But I would assume it is social justice" for the world, he said, adding that if that is the case, "the only thing that will lift people out of poverty is freedom and free enterprise."
Sounding much like he did on the campaign trail before failing in his bid for the presidency, Romney said he would strengthen America's military and press its allies to do the same, while pushing Russia to adopt practices of free enterprise.
About Hillary Clinton
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now seen as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, was "gushing with smiles" during a presentation to a Russian official, Romney said.
And Obama, he said, failed by focusing on countries such as Cuba and North Korea, emboldening China and allowing what Americans fought and died for in Iraq to be pushed to "the cusp potentially of vanishing."
"Spreading democracy through armed conflict is not the answer. Nor is isolationism," Romney said, calling for more "assertiveness" to confront Russia and China, both "vying to reshape the world in their image."
Romney ended by saying he came away from his presidential campaign more optimistic about the future of the United States.
"It is the failing of White House leadership that concerns me, and that must change," Romney said. "I lost the election, but I, and we, will continue to fight."
His remarks followed a breakfast speech by one of the contenders, Paul, that began a day of speeches and panel discussions about American leadership. Most were closed to the media.
Politico's Mike Allen was among the national media covering Romney's retreat. Past retreats, including one during Romney's 2012 White House bid, were entirely off-limits to reporters.
"It's interesting that he’s encouraging us to be here. He wants to be part of the conversation," Allen said.
Speeches by both Schweitzer and Huckabee were open to the media. Both made personal pitches to the high-powered audience that sounded like campaign stump speeches although neither have said they're running.
After Schweitzer spoke about his rural ranching roots, GOP adviser Ana Navarro asked a question about how relatable Hillary Clinton would be as the Democrats' candidate then said, "Just run, Brian."
Huckabee, who did not take questions, described how he learned an important political lesson about "steering into the curve" by heading down Utah's Olympic bobsled track during a meeting of governors here years ago.
Reporters were also allowed to hear former Secretary of State George Schultz under President Ronald Reagan answer questions about foreign policy from Kerry Healey, who served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts under Romney.
Schultz said the United States "left Iraq prematurely. We had accomplished a lot. It was peaceful when we left. But we didn’t finish the job. Now we’re paying the price for that."
He was also critical of the Obama administration's handling of the war in Afghanistan, saying it was a mistake to try to do more than drive out the terrorists.
"To think you can rearrange a culture is questionable," Schultz said.
"Governing is different from campaigning," he said. "I don't know who our next candidate is going to be for the Republican Party … but I hope he's somebody who's had some experience governing. There's nothing like experience."
The Utah GOP's 4th Congressional District candidate, Mia Love, participated in a panel on Republicans and women that was closed to the press. Love told reporters she talked about women supporting each other.
"Women should have a seat at the table," Love said. "A lot of women have a lot to offer."
She said she was asked about how to reach out to voters. "I mentioned that we need to get out and tell people stories, tell them about their lives. And that's how we're really going to get an idea of how to fix the problems."
Asked if she was able to connect with any of the donors at the retreat, Love said she "was able to see some people in the campaign before and meet some new people. This wasn't about me. I didn't make this about me."
BYU political scientist Quin Monson said Republicans need to fix their problems with women, Latino voters and other groups. But he also said that shift could take a while.
"It takes a substantial, sustained commitment by the party, members of congress and policy over the time to move that needle," Monson said.
Romney told reporters he would not make a third run for the White House, and Monson said that makes Romney a principal connector for financing.
"One thing he did extremely well was raise money," Monson said. "The experience of running the first two times would put him far ahead in terms of infrastructure and the ability to run a campaign and talk to the right people."
Contributing: Andrew Adams