Mitt Romney's exit from the 2016 presidential campaign pushes the GOP race back where it was three weeks ago, before his brief flirtation: a wide-open contest among the establishment, religiously oriented, and libertarian wings of the Republican Party.
The immediate beneficiaries were former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, rivals who share Romney's appeal to the business-minded, pragmatically conservative voters of their party. They wasted no time Friday chasing donors who had sat frozen, awaiting Romney's decision.
"People are working the phones furiously," said Bobbie Kilberg, a major Republican contributor in Virginia, who jumped into Christie's camp immediately after Romney announced his withdrawal.
Other prospective candidates stood to gain as well, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a pair of relatively fresh faces who until now have been overshadowed by the far-better-known Bush, the son and brother of former presidents, and Romney, who tried for the White House in 2008 and ran as the party's nominee in 2012.
"This kind of upsets the apple cart," said Craig Robinson, a GOP activist in Iowa, the state that kicks off the presidential balloting with its wintry caucuses. "With Romney out it allows Bush and Chris Christie and Scott Walker a little more room to operate."
But their jostling is only a part of the Republican nominating fight, which could draw 10 or more serious contestants; many of them are already working frenetically behind the scenes.
Several of those already vying, including a pair of previous candidates, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, are competing for the support of evangelical Christians, a crucial constituency in early-voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina. Others, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, are favorites of the tea party wing of the GOP and adherents of the movement's limited-government philosophy.
Romney's exit will affect their fortunes mostly to the extent it heightens the competition between Bush and others bidding for establishment support.
Romney's announcement in a pair of conference calls with supporters caught many by surprise — as had his renewed interest in 2016, first revealed Jan. 9 in a closed-door meeting with Republican donors.
In the following weeks, the former Massachusetts governor gave all signs of ramping up another run, with internal discussion of where to place his campaign headquarters — Boston and Salt Lake City being two options — and the public testing of a platform focused on foreign affairs and helping America's middle-class and poor.
In fairly short order, however, after much time on the telephone with party leaders, donors and grass-roots activists, and with a characteristically clinical analysis, Romney dropped out of the 2016 mix as quickly as he had resurfaced.
Speaking for less than five minutes, he sounded conflicted. In comments first to close friends and advisors, then to a broader group of supporters and reporters listening in, Romney touted his strength in early opinion polls, the election team he was prepared to assemble and the support of donors ready to sustain his effort.
But, he said, he grew convinced that others in the GOP may be better-positioned for 2016 after his two failed attempts to win the White House. He mentioned no names, but seemed to suggest a candidate other than Bush, with whom he's had a cordial but not especially warm relationship.
"I believe that one of our next generation of Republican leaders, one who may not be as well-known as I am today, one who has not yet taken their message across the country, one who is just getting started, may well emerge as being better able to defeat the Democrat nominee," the 67-year-old Romney said. "In fact, I expect and hope that to be the case."
Several people who spoke with Romney in the days leading to his decision said he was convinced he could win the GOP nomination and the White House but worried about the toll it would take on his family and the Republican Party.
In particular, one advisor said, he was worried about a potential general election matchup with Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, concerned that his decade on the national political stage would undercut the Republican argument for change in a contest with the former secretary of State, New York senator and first lady.
Insiders who agreed to discuss events taking place in private asked not to be identified, to preserve their relationships with Romney and his family.
Romney made his decision not to run last weekend, according to several of those familiar with his deliberations, but chose to wait before making an announcement to be sure he was comfortable with his choice.
In the meantime, he proceeded with a campaign-style appearance Wednesday in Mississippi, where he lambasted both Clinton and President Obama.
After Obama made an oblique reference Thursday to Romney's new focus on poverty, his former GOP opponent responded on Twitter: "Mr. Obama, wonder why my concern about poverty? The record number of poor in your term, and your record of failure to remedy."
Romney's three-week mulling of a 2016 bid was startling, given the repeated and seemingly definitive statements previously by him and his wife, Ann, ruling out another try for president.
But beyond a core group of die-hard Romney supporters who had fanned his hopes, the response was less than enthusiastic. Many Republicans — including potential rivals who lavished him with praise upon his exit Friday — suggested Romney's time had come and gone, and wondered how his 2016 effort would differ from previous error-prone campaigns.
Several former donors and campaign workers declared their commitments to other candidates; David Kochel, a prominent Iowa strategist who was personally close to Romney and his family and worked on both his presidential campaigns, announced Thursday that he was joining Bush's effort.
Asked how Romney felt about the defection of so many old friends and supporters, one longtime confidant responded: "I wouldn't say it was a joy ride." But, he said, Romney was heartened by the many people who urged him to enter the race.
Some allies, while expressing disappointment, felt a bit of pressure released after Romney stepped aside.
"Everyone was 100% behind him had he chosen to run," said Rich Beeson, who served as political director of Romney's 2012 campaign.
At the same time, Beeson said, "as much as people might have wanted to do another campaign, the thought of [Romney and his wife] not getting dragged through it again — there's a little bit of a sense of relief."
Twitter: @markzbarabak, @LATseema