As Mitt Romney walked briskly through the lobby of the Salt Lake City Mariott on Tuesday afternoon, a pack of reporters in tow, he repeatedly declined to say if he was going to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Orrin Hatch.
“I’ve got nothing for you on that today,” said Romney over and over to questions about whether he was going to run or when he might announce his intentions.
Romney is widely expected to launch a bid for the Senate sometime this year.
The speech he delivered in the hour beforehand also offered few clues about what he may be planning.
On the one hand, it sounded like the rough skeleton of a stump speech. He peppered in thoughts about how he was hopeful for the future of the nation, and how much he loves Utah and America, typical campaign fare.
On the other, hand it was an address heavy on policy as he discussed debt, the environment, education, poverty, the economy and gridlock in Washington. The most eyebrow-raising part was his statement that human activity is responsible for climate change. In itself, that’s not too controversial, but in today’s GOP, it’s the kind of statement that gets your attention.
“I’m convinced bright days are ahead of us. I’m convinced Utah has a lesson to teach the rest of the nation,” said Romney in the most campaign-ey part of his 25-minute speech.
Any hopes for a campaign-style talk were likely dashed when Romney broke out the powerpoint. History is bereft of successful politicians who broke out the slideshow on the campaign trail. The closest comparison might be Ross Perot and his famous charts during the 1992 presidential campaign.
Romney’s close friend, real estate magnate Kem Gardner, poked fun at those in the audience who were expecting some sort of acknowledgment that he was going to run for Senate.
“I’d like to introduce Senator, excuse me, Governor Mitt Romney,” he said to laughs.
After his prepared remarks, Romney sat down with Natalie Gochnour for a chat, where he sounded more like a candidate, but not much.
He did deflect when Gochnour asked him about running, which everybody expects him to do.
“I’m not going to answer that,’ he said. But he added, “Anyone who looks at public service in any capacity must ask themselves if their abilities and connections can help people.”
What did he think about projections that a Democratic wave was building in November?
“I’m more optimistic about my party’s prospects in November than the media. Tax reform and regulatory reform in Washington will have a positive impact, and that will lead to a strong economy,” he said. “In a strong economy, the party in power is going to be favored.”
He also said the Republicans have a better economic message right now.
“I don’t want to be partisan, but I think the Democrats are scrambling to figure out what to say about jobs and the economy. A lot of places are increasing wages. These Republican steps seem to be working,” he said. “I think they’re really in trouble. I believe that voters will decide they’re better under Republican leadership and they’ll put Republicans back in power.”
How about the perception that the Republicans don’t care about deficits anymore now that they’re in charge?
“There have always been two streams in the Republican party, one focused on growth and one preaching fiscal restraint. The growth focus is holding sway right now, and the public seems less focused on government debt than they were four or five years ago.”
What does he think about the GOP tax package?
“My own tax plan I put forward in 2012 did not rely on growth to balance the budget. But, I think we’ll see higher growth because of these tax cuts in the long run, which will help reduce deficits.”
Romney also zeroed in on entitlement reform.
“There really is no way to avoid this ballooning debt without reforming entitlement programs to make them sustainable. I think the American people understand we need to make changes to these programs. This issue is vulnerable to being demagogued, but we can’t make promises we can’t keep.”
When asked about immigration, it was a clear opening for Romney to be critical of President Donald Trump, but he steered clear.
“I’m not looking to see mass deportations,” said Romney. “I welcome legal immigration. I’d like to have people with the skills to contribute to the economy, and I favor merit-based immigration. My friends in Washington need to find a way to settle this.”
The only time Romney came close to Trump was during his closing remarks.
“There was a lot of discussion in the last campaign about greatness. I don’t think a nation can be considered great if it’s not good. America is a great nation. Utah is a great state and a good state.”