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SALT LAKE CITY — Speculation that Mitt Romney may run for Senate next year if Sen. Orrin Hatch doesn't seek an eighth term was further fueled Friday when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed he's talked about the race with Romney.
Earlier in the week, The Atlantic reported that McConnell had encouraged the Republican's 2012 presidential nominee to run for Senate if Hatch decides he's done, assuring Romney he would have more influence than other first-time senators.
"I've had some conversations with Mitt Romney," McConnell told reporters Friday, according to The Associated Press. "Obviously, I'm an Orrin Hatch supporter. Orrin has to decide what he wants to do. If he wants to run again, I'm for him."
Utah's senior Republican senator, first elected in 1976, hasn't been definitive about his intentions yet.
A week ago, he told The National Journal he would consider stepping down if he "could get a really outstanding person to run" and cited Romney as someone who "would be perfect" to take over for him in the Senate.
But in a statement originally made to The Atlantic, Hatch said while he holds Romney "in extraordinarily high esteem, my musing aloud on the subject has apparently snowballed into a frenzy of premature speculation."
Friday, Hatch told CNN he regularly talks to Romney but said it is "early to talk about this stuff." The senator also said to the cable news network that he has "made the decision that I'm going to run, but things change."
Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock tweeted Friday in response to a CNN reporter, "He's having a lot of fun with you guys."
Later, Whitlock said in a statement that while Hatch "has occasionally offered off-hand speculation about his future, he remains laser-focused on his work in the Senate and has not yet made a decision about running for re-election."
Romney, who was in France for an event Thursday marking the completion of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Paris France Temple, has had little to say since telling KSL in February he wasn't ruling out another run for office.
"I don't have any predictions on what I might do. I'm not going to open a door and I'm not going to close a door. All doors are open," Romney told the newspaper then, after describing the 2018 Senate race as one that is "going to be interesting."
Romney's backers have already reportedly been gauging donor interest, but the former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah who went on to serve as Massachusetts governor before running for president is said to be waiting on Hatch.
"This is a decision people are going to leave to Sen. Hatch and not make a move until he does," said Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "He's going to make up his mind when he's ready and not until then."
Romney had been briefly considered for secretary of state by President Donald Trump despite his harsh condemnation of Trump as a phony and a fraud during the campaign.
Perry said that "demonstrates what many in Utah already believe, and that is he has one more big thing in him" and is willing to consider an open Senate seat should Hatch choose to end what will be a 42-year career.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. had indicated interest, but has reportedly been tapped by Trump to be the U.S. ambassador to Russia. Romney's son Josh has also been mentioned, but has said he's looking at running for governor in 2020.
"All of the activity around the decision Sen. Hatch has to make really just demonstrates the interest in this position. I think there are many that are watching very closely to see if there is an opportunity," Perry said.
He said that opportunity will be limited if Hatch decides not to run again and Mitt Romney gets in the race.
"It's going to have a chilling effect" on any competition, Perry said.
Longtime Romney supporter Kirk Jowers said the "appeal for Utah for a Sen. Romney is we replace one of the most venerated senators in Hatch with perhaps the most famous Republican in the country so we don't lose that stature."
Jowers said nationally, the GOP could be helped by Romney serving in the Senate.
"Romney could potentially be an incredible asset because right now, it's all Trump, all the time," he said, by providing a contrast with the Republican president's bombastic style.
Perry said the time for a Senate campaign to get up and running is approaching fast.
"Sen. Hatch is acting right now like someone who is planning to run. And that is the right way to approach this," Perry said. "You keep every option open, even if he is thinking in the back of his mind he might be done at the end of this term."