As Senate speculation grows, Romney won't say if he plans to run

Romney to give 2 speeches in Utah this week

By MAEVE RESTON, CNN
Headline Goes Here Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Mitt Romney

(CNN) - Mitt Romney refused to say anything about his plans to run for the US Senate during an appearance before the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, but he offered hints about what his agenda might be in Washington.

In a speech centered on economic policy, Romney outlined his concerns about the failure to address entitlement reform to curb the nation's debt, global warming, education and inter-generational poverty. Using charts and graphs, he focused at length on the declining opportunities and lack of wage growth for less educated workers -- the voters who powered President Donald Trump's bid for the White House.

"Those who have less than high school or high school only have seen a deteriorating economic circumstance -- that leads to greater and greater income disparity, wealth disparity within the population, a lot of resentment, anger and finger-pointing," he said. "It's just not fair. Not good. Everyone in America has an equal value under the eyes of our creator."

"Some of these issues we have answers to," Romney said, criticizing gridlock in Washington, "but just not the will to get them done."

During a Q&A session following his speech, Romney was asked whether he plans to run for the seat of retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.

"I have nothing for you on that topic," he replied with a smile.

He was also asked what his focus would be in Washington: "I'm not going to answer that either."

Romney, who has bluntly criticized Trump's impolitic rhetoric and unpresidential behavior at various points over the last two years, did not mention the President. He praised aspects of the tax reform bill and the administration's effort to reduce regulations.

When asked about his own vision for the country, he touched on Trump's campaign theme -- "Make America Great Again" -- and said that in his view to be "great" America must show both its strength and goodness. He cited the strong moral values of the leaders and voters of Utah as an example to the nation.

"There's another component of greatness that we cannot afford to lose, and that's goodness. I don't think a nation can be considered a great nation that's not good," Romney said to applause, using Russia under Vladimir Putin as an example of a nation lacking that quality. "The character, the culture of America is what has made us the powerhouse of the world economically, with our strength as well as our goodness."

Romney, who worked at the Boston-based Bain & Company before forming Bain Capital, has long kept a vacation home in Utah and he made the state his primary residence in 2014. He is best known in Utah for salvaging the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games after they were mired in a bribery scandal that became a deep embarrassment to the state.

Though Romney has quietly been telling friends for weeks that he plans to run, the official line from his advisers is that he is still exploring the opportunity, talking to friends and family, as well as fellow Utahns about what they would like to see from their next senator.

Attention has centered on his fraught relationship with Trump. He sharply criticized Trump's rhetoric during the 2016 campaign, as well as his missteps once he moved into the White House. Trump had actively encouraged Hatch to seek an eighth term, but he and Romney are on cordial terms. It is unclear whether Trump encouraged Romney to run in their most recent telephone conversation earlier this month. Romney advisers have refused to comment on what was said during the call.

As the country was celebrating the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday, Romney rebuked the President for questioning why the US should allow immigrants from "shithole" countries to enter the US.

"The poverty of an aspiring immigrant's nation of origin is as irrelevant as their race. The sentiment attributed to POTUS is inconsistent w/ America's history and antithetical to American values. May our memory of Dr. King buoy our hope for unity, greatness, & 'charity for all,'" Romney tweeted early Monday.

Because of his immense popularity in Utah, Romney is expected to have a fairly easy path to the Senate. No Republicans of stature in Utah have stepped forward to say they plan to run for Hatch's seat. Early last year, Hatch made it clear that he would like to see Romney replace him.

Romney's biggest hurdle would be winning over the most ardent conservative activists at the Utah GOP convention later this year when they decide who to nominate for the Senate. But even if he were to fail to win the 40% needed to advance to the ballot through that process, he could easily secure a spot on the primary ballot by collecting signatures and submitting them to the state.

In the November general election, he is most likely to face Democrat Jenny Wilson, a member of the Salt Lake County Commission whose father was a well-known mayor of Salt Lake City. Given Utah's long Republican tradition, she would face very long odds in a quest to defeat Romney.

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