Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's declaration Friday that he would not run for president in 2016 boosts at least two other Republican candidates vying for the support of the party's establishment wing.
New Jersey's Gov. Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush now can tap a group of prominent GOP donors who had been holding off making commitments to other candidates pending Romney's decision about a third run for president, analysts and donors said.
Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, said earlier in January that he was interested in running again but - after finding the path ahead uncertain - pulled the plug Friday during a conference call with advisers and supporters.
"Crowded primaries are like track meets, and the moderate-conservative lane just got a little less crowded," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Bush has been recruiting former Romney donors and operatives for a couple of months, giving him an early edge, Brown said.
"It's the flip side to the criticism that Jeb Bush is not a fresh candidate: He has access to people who have been giving money to and supporting Bushes for decades," Brown said. "That's not to say Christie can't recover and catch up."
Meanwhile, Christie and Romney were scheduled to dine together Friday night in New York, a long-planned meeting that seemed to take on added import just hours after the fateful conference call.
The two men have been close, and Romney's team vetted Christie as a potential vice presidential pick in the last cycle.
Romney met with Bush last week in Salt Lake City.
"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," Romney said on the call.
The reference to generational change seemed to imply that Romney does not believe Bush, the candidate of dynasty as the son and brother of presidents, would be the best choice for the party. (At least that was the way supporters of Christie and other contenders chose to spin it Friday.)
Bush is 61, while both Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a favorite of tea partiers and libertarians, are 52.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, another potential candidate, is 43, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is 44.
"If Mitt had run, my deep friendship and loyalty to him would have been determinate," Bobbie Kilberg, a Virginia Republican fund-raiser told Bloomberg News on Friday. "Now that he's out, my husband and I are free to back Chris."
Craig Robinson, a former Iowa GOP political director, said that Romney's decision "kicks the door wide open" in Iowa and other early voting states.
"This definitely helps Bush, who had no foothold in Iowa at all, and it helps Chris Christie," Robinson said.
He said the move also creates an opening for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a conservative who appeals to both pro-business establishment types and evangelicals.
This article contains information from the Associated Press.