Take their word for it: Every major official in the Republican Party is really, truly, 100 percent enthusiastically committed to electing Mitt Romney this November, and they're convinced he'll win on Nov. 6.
At least, that's the public message.
On the off-chance Romney doesn't get across the finish line, a handful of ex-rivals and prominent Republicans are suddenly showing up in the states that would be first to vote in a 2016 presidential primary.
On Saturday, a trio of once -- and possibly future -- presidential candidates will speak to a conservative forum in Iowa hosted by the group Citizens United and a prominent Iowa social conservative organization, the Family Leader. Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Texas Gov. Rick Perry will all appear at the event.
The Republicans all have good explanations for being there: Perry is supposed to be representing Romney, according to officials involved in the forum, and Santorum and Huckabee were invited as the 2008 and 2012 Iowa caucus victors.
But Iowa is Iowa, and a joint appearance in the land of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses inevitably opens the door to the topic of 2016.
The Iowa visit is only one instance of how heavyweight Republicans appear to be positioning themselves with an eye toward the next cycle at the very height of a general election campaign. At least two potential 2016 candidates have already conferred with national advisers about a possible campaign in the event that Romney loses, according to sources familiar with the conversations.
"People think Mitt has a real shot. But everyone is getting in position just in case," said Faith and Freedom Coalition President Ralph Reed, who said some of the jockeying reflected a generational handover in the Republican Party.
"We have the deepest and strongest bench I have ever seen," Reed said, citing such GOP stars as Paul Ryan, Nikki Haley, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Bob McDonnell and Rob Portman.
He added to the list: "Santorum, Huck and Perry, if they decide to go for the second bite at the apple -- or at least that I have seen since 1980 when Reagan, Bush, Dole and Howard Baker ran," Reed said. "And yet they are not yet ready to run the Derby either because [now] is not time or because they have to keep their head down while Romney is the nominee."
Ready or not, an array of name-brand Republicans has been hitting the road while their presumptive nominee is busy trying to knock off an incumbent president.
Last weekend, Sarah Palin made a surprise appearance at an annual dinner hosted by Iowa businessman Bruce Rastetter, a major bankroller of Republican causes in the state and nationally. In May, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul spoke to the Iowa branch of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Virginia attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, a favorite of national conservative activists, addressed the Iowa GOP's Lincoln Day Dinner the same month.
If Republicans are mostly careful not to undercut Romney too directly, the quasi-public weighing of options for next cycle is not a big vote of confidence in the GOP's 2012 candidate.
Ed Rollins, Ronald Reagan's campaign manager who ran Huckabee's 2008 race, said these are the normal rhythms of the closing days of a national race, adding that the interest around the GOP bench reflects a simple fact: "People don't think Romney's got that great a shot. He hasn't run a very good campaign."
But longtime Santorum adviser John Brabender said the Pennsylvanian hasn't been thinking about 2016 in the slightest.
"Whenever we talk, it's about the presidential election in 2012 or congressional elections in 2012," Brabender said, acknowledging that "there will always be" whispers and rumors surrounding early-state visits by national political figures.
Other Republicans who aren't physically trekking out to the early states sound like they're keeping 2016 in mind. In late July, New Jersey Gov. Christie said he'd "certainly think about" running next cycle if the White House is open.
"If there's an opportunity for me to serve in another capacity and I think I have something to add to the mix, I don't think I'd back away from it," Christie said in response to a town-hall question, according to The Associated Press.
The other, less-reported half of Christie's statement was that he expects Romney to win. The governor was an early Romney backer and has traveled extensively for him. The 2016 chatter is being driven by his many fans in the conservative elite, more than by Christie himself -- but it's all now part of the political bloodstream.
Several people familiar with Christie's thinking insist he spoke candidly about 2016, but not because he was already plotting; he has not given any real thought to 2016, they say.
More national Republicans who harbor national ambitions -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, for one, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- have been showing up in key states to stump for Romney. That has the inevitable benefit of boosting their own profiles for future elections.
And Jindal isn't just showing up for Romney: he's also speaking at a GOPAC Iowa and National Rifle Association fundraiser this month, aimed at boosting the kind of state and local candidates who would be helpful in the context of a Jindal 2016 campaign. Bush will address a Sioux City Chamber of Commerce event in October.
"No one is traveling the country more [for] Romney than Jindal is. His entire focus is on being governor of Louisiana and winning the presidential race this November," Jindal adviser Curt Anderson said.
In Iowa, Family Leader head Bob Vander Plaats, a Sioux City businessman and Christian activist, said conservatives who have rallied around Romney despite their hesitations can't help but mull their options for 2016. He summed up their attitude: "We want to make [Obama] a one-term president, but if it doesn't happen, we hope that Huckabee or we hope that Santorum or we hope that Rick Perry gives it another shot."
"I guarantee you that, whether it's Huckabee or Santorum or Rick Perry, Saturday, the people in attendance will be sizing them up for potential presidential candidate, either in 2016 or later," said Vander Plaats, an on-and-off critic of Romney. "They always have kind of a peeled eye for who's coming next, who might be the one that is going to seek our support."
David Bossie, who leads Citizens United, said the Republicans visiting Iowa this weekend would help Romney's cause by spending time there -- and probably help themselves, too.
"Obviously, the side effect, the benefit of those men coming, is it continues to put them in play if Mitt Romney was not to be successful in November," Bossie said. "Is that in the backs of people's minds? Absolutely. Is it anywhere [high] in the thought process? I highly doubt it, but I haven't talked to Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum about it."
Over in New Hampshire, the state that follows Iowa in the nominating calendar, there haven't been as many potential 2016 candidates visiting on their own initiative. But plenty of Republicans have touched down as Romney surrogates.
That's the right move for any politician who wants to keep his options open with an election cycle in mid-swing, said Rich Killion, a former adviser to Tim Pawlenty and Romney's 2008 bid.
"It's always a continual process. We see many leaders come through here so folks can say, they can potentially be seeing them down the line as a candidate for president," Killion said. "But it's always best done, frankly, when the surrogates and others are coming in here primarily to help other people. It's only the activists that pay attention to that and activists right now care about electing, in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney as president and getting a Republican governor."
Killion continued: "We're not seeing potential wannabes on their own coming in, for their own accord. I think you'll see them in the fall trying to help Mitt Romney be president. You will probably see them offering up their assistance to whoever the Republican nominee is for governor here, as well as our two congressmen."
The early states aren't the only arena for presidential-level maneuvering. The Romney campaign's selection of a vice president and the national GOP's planning for the Tampa convention have also given ambitious Republicans the chance to vie for (very) early support and exposure. Conservative opinion leaders who have been pushing Ryan, Rubio and Christie for the job of Romney's running mate also know they're elevating those Republicans as candidates in their own right.
Nearly every top-tier 2016 prospect has already been announced as a speaker for the Republican National Convention. Some are taking extra steps to win exposure: Citizens United will debut a documentary about the founding of the United States, "Our Sacred Honor," at the Tampa convention with Santorum as its host.
Like Santorum, most Republican up-and-comers deny they're doing anything but being good Republican foot soldiers.
For many, it has the benefit of being true: When Christie and Bush and others tour the 2012 map to stump for Romney, it's hard to argue that they're taking their eyes off the task at hand.
For others in the 2016 lineup, there are also intervening challenges that will determine whether a presidential run is even viable: Christie has a reelection campaign to deal with in 2013. The rock star governors of the 2010 cycle -- Kasich, Walker and others -- will have to fight for new terms a year after that.
Still, strategists aligned with a wide range of Republicans agreed that Christie's candor last month is simply a matter of fact: if Romney loses, he and a large group of other GOP aspirants will begin planning their next moves. That process would accelerate on Nov. 7, but it will have started, quietly, before then.
"Mitt Romney's able to benefit from these types of efforts because it energizes the base that he needs to turn out," Bossie said of the event in Iowa this weekend. "It's a little early to be organizing for the Iowa caucuses in 2016."
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