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Is a Bush-Romney faceoff ahead?

If Jeb Bush's early disclosure that he's clearing the decks for a 2016 presidential bid was meant to scare off all Republican opposition, it appears to have backfired on him.

The party's 2012 losing nominee, Mitt Romney, seems to have roused himself from declared retirement to rally his old faithful for a possible third try after all. But he also has generated more skepticism than encouragement from the Grand Old Party, which already has a bumper crop of fresh faces approaching the starting line.

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For the time being, Mr. Romney's ruminations have posed the possibility of an interesting early confrontation with Mr. Bush, in which the 2012 Republican nominee seems destined to align himself even more strongly with the party's conservative wing that he tried unsuccessfully to woo three years ago.

Discerning voters will recall how Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who designed the forerunner to Obamacare in the Bay State, conspicuously bent himself out of shape in the 2012 primary campaign to get right with the GOP right wing.

In embracing its ranks, to the point of once declaring himself "severely conservative," Mr. Romney managed to survive the party's primary gauntlet, but without convincing enough Republicans that this particular leopard had changed his spots.

At the same time, Mr. Romney's gaffe in a supposedly off-the-record fundraiser for Republican fat cats, in which he said the votes of "47 percent of Americans" were beyond his grasp because they were on the public dole, confirmed for Democratic voters that he was writing them off.

Although that remark was widely considered to have sealed his fate against President Obama in 2012, comments from the Romney camp have suggested if he runs in 2016 he will intensify efforts to convince Republican conservatives again of his party bona fides, in order to outflank Mr. Bush on the right.

Mr. Bush has invited just such a Romney attempt by indicating in a speech last month at the University of South Carolina that he would not emulate Mr. Romney's 2012 courtship of the GOP right to survive the primaries.

"You don't have to follow the pattern," Mr. Bush said, seeming to wrap political advice in his counsel to the graduating students. "You can do what you want to do. In fact, life is a lot better if you can find more reasons to do your own things. Don't be afraid to shake things up."

Unavoidably, Mr. Bush's own break with conservative orthodoxy regarding such political issues as the Common Core educational testing standards and same-sex marriage immediately appeared to forecast a more moderate Jeb on the stump in 2016 than the Jeb Bush who governed as a declared conservative in Florida.

If so, the stage would be set for a head-on clash between him and Romney in the GOP primaries, with the 2012 loser laboring once again to convince the voters that he is "severely conservative," while Jeb Bush occupies the establishment party ground, with the Bush name and tradition on his side.

The prospect of such a showdown, as well as lesser financial resources, might well discourage many of the other prospective 2016 hopefuls from running, or driving them out early in the primary season. Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas may already be having second thoughts.

The two U.S. senators also weighing presidential candidacies, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, not to mention former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, will also be casting watchful eyes on the prospect of a Romney-Bush faceoff, perhaps with wishful thinking that its debris might open the way for them or one of the other wannabes in the primaries.

Such is the early-season guessing game resulting from the current jockeying for position, well before the call to the colors at the starting gate for a presidential election still nearly two years off.

About the only prospective White House aspirant likely to be amused by all this Republican frenzy is Democrat Hillary Clinton, whose principal conjecture on running seems to be with herself. And enough already with that too.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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