WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney kept them guessing.
In his first prominent speech since telling donors last week he was still interested in the White House, the 2012 Republican nominee hinted and quipped about a possible presidential run next year but stopped well short of any announcement.
With the 2016 election cycle clearly underway and Jeb Bush announcing last month that he is actively exploring a presidential bid, Romney suddenly finds himself under political pressure to signal whether he is ready to mount a third campaign to lead the nation, or yield to a new crop of candidates.
"There's some speculation about whether I'm about to embark on a political endeavour in which I've been previously unsuccessful," the former governor of Massachusetts and two-time presidential candidate told an audience at the Republican National Convention winter meeting in San Diego, California.
"Let me state unequivocally that I have no intention for running for US Senate in Massachusetts." The joke drew laughs from the crowd, but it signalled that Romney, 67, is acutely aware of the political spotlight on him.
Saying he was giving "serious consideration to the future," Romney stressed he thought Republicans could win back the White House next year "if we communicate a clear vision of where we're taking this country, what we believe in."
Romney, offering hints of his 2012 self, wasted little time trotting out familiar targets from his campaign, including the "Hillary Clinton Barack Obama foreign policy" which he said has left the world less safe.
The president and then-secretary of state's policies, he said, were based on the premise that "if we smile broadly enough and press the reset button, that peace is going to break out around the world." Instead he said the results have been "devastating," and cited the recent attacks in Paris and Nigeria, Russia's Ukraine invasion, sea aggression by China and the Syria crisis.
Romney, painted by Democrats during the previous campaign as an out-of-touch millionaire, notably said poverty alleviation should be a key Republican principle for 2016.
"Liberal (anti-poverty) policies are good every four years for a campaign, but they don't get the job done," he said.