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For Romney, No Guarantee That the Third Time Would Be the Charm

Image: Santorum, Gingrich, Bachmann, Romney, Perry, Paul, Cain, and Huntsman stand before the start of the GOP presidential primary debate in Simi Valley

Republican presidential candidates (L-R): Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, and Jon Huntsman stand on stage before the start of the Reagan Centennial GOP presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California September 7, 2011. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) MARIO ANZUONI / Reuters

Republicans say Mitt Romney would start the GOP race as one of the favorites if he ran for a president for a third time but would face a much bigger challenge to win the nomination than he did in 2012. And, they warn, he would still not be guaranteed to be elected president, particularly if Hillary Clinton is the Democrats’ candidate.

GOP insiders say Romney is still popular among the party’s donors and could raise the money to run a credible campaign.

But, at the same time, some former Romney backers say they are excited about the potential candidacies of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and particularly former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Romney Last Summer: 'I'm Not Running for President' 0:32

“I think the world of Mitt Romney. If Jeb weren’t on the ballot, he would be a near lock to be the Republicans’ nominee and he is still probably either a favorite or among the favorites,” said Brian Ballard, a Florida lobbyist who was on Romney’s finance committee in 2012 but said he will likely back Bush if the former governor opts to run. “If they both choose to run, it’s a good thing for the Republican Party.”

“His great strength is he could put together an organization,” said Ed Rollins, a longtime GOP strategist who advised Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign and Mike Huckabee’s in 2008.

“But from my perspective, I think you have a lot of great candidates this time and a new face or even Jeb Bush is probably a better run at it,” Rollins added. “A lot of people were disappointed in the Romney campaign, and I’m not sure Hillary Clinton will be an easier candidate to run against than Obama."

Ronald Reagan ran in 1968, lost again in 1976 and then was elected president in 1980. And perennial long-shot candidates like Ron Paul have also run multiple times. But a third run by Romney, who lost the in GOP primary in 2008 and then the general election in 2012, would be highly unusual. Richard Nixon was the last person to lose the general election (1960) and then win in a second run (1968).

Image: Santorum, Gingrich, Bachmann, Romney, Perry, Paul, Cain, and Huntsman stand before the start of the GOP presidential primary debate in Simi Valley
Republican presidential candidates (L-R): Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, and Jon Huntsman stand on stage before the start of the Reagan Centennial GOP presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California September 7, 2011. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) MARIO ANZUONI / Reuters

In 2012, Romney faced what was generally considered a lackluster field among Republicans, with few candidates able to raise sufficient money or sustain serious campaigns. Even then, he struggled to lock down the nomination, as conservative primary voters opted for Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich in key primaries.

The Republican field in 2016 may not be so weak. Bush is a formidable figure, with a long record of conservative policy achievements in Florida. He will inherit some of his father and brother’s political connections, although he also must deal with dissatisfaction from conservatives with their presidencies. Wisconsin’s Walker, by winning elections in 2010 and 2014 and defeating a recall effort in 2012, has demonstrated that he can win in a state that often votes for Democrats. Christie also won reelection in an even more liberal state.

None of those three men is likely to opt against running simply because Romney is in the race. And all three could potentially raise the tens of millions of dollars that would be necessary to compete with Romney financially.

It had been assumed Romney would not run in light of the slew of other potential candidates. In an interview in August with conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt, Romney said, "we’ve got a number of very good people looking at this race. I’m expecting someone to be able to catch fire and get the job done."

"I hope I would be a better candidate than I was last time. I mean, you hope you learn from your mistakes," Romney said back then. "But at the same time, there are people who are not yet known by the American public who have extraordinary records, great capability, Paul Ryan being one of them, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio. Of course, people are getting to know Chris Christie. Jeb Bush, they don’t know Jeb Bush as the governor of Florida, and the kind of record he has and had there. These are people who I think have the potential to really ignite interest in our party and potentially win the general."

Walker, Jindal, Rubio, Christie and Bush, all of whom Romney praised, are now taking active steps to run for president. So Ballard said he was surprised to hear Romney was so strongly considering a third campaign, a view echoed by other Republicans.

“What Mitt said to the assembled group was, now I’m paraphrasing: ‘I am seriously considering and weighing a run, ” said Bobbie Kilberg, a long-time Republican donor and bundler who raised more than $4 million for Mitt Romney. She was not in the meeting in New York City on Friday where Romney suggested he might run, but was told of his remarks by two donors who were.

“The difference I see here is the conversation I’ve had with him in the past is that his position always was I am preserving my options,” she told NBC News. “What he said today was a different degree of intensity.”

The big question will be if Romney actually makes moves toward a full-fledged campaign. Bush has already started to ask for commitments from potential campaign donors. Walker has tapped a veteran GOP strategist to run his campaign. Several potential candidates, including Walker and Christie, are going to a forum on Jan 24 in Iowa.

At the same time, Romney has time: none of these Republicans has said unequivocally that he is running for president.

NBC's Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.