By CNN Political Editor Paul Steinhauser
(CNN) — Mitt Romney’s back in Iowa.
No, the two time Republican presidential candidate isn’t launching a third run for the White House. Romney’s made it clear a number of times that those days are over.
Instead, the former Massachusetts governor and 2012 GOP nominee’s in the Hawkeye State – which every four years kicks off the presidential caucus and primary calendar – to lend a helping hand to a fellow Republican.
Romney is on the campaign trail on Friday at events in Cedar Rapids and Davenport for state Sen. Joni Ernst, who’s the frontrunner in a crowded field for Iowa’s Republican Senate nomination.
“I have great friends here in this room, and I have friends from all over this state and all over the country, and I’m honored to be here with you to tell you why it is I think Joni ought to be the next United States senator,” Romney said at the Cedar Rapids rally as he introduced Ernst.
Few would have predicted it following his defeat to President Barack Obama last time out, but Romney’s become a major player again in GOP primary politics, as part of his increasing influential role in helping to shape the future of his party.
“What I am doing is campaigning across the country and helping raise money across the country for people who I think can get elected and can get America on a course once again with a strong foreign policy and with policies domestically that help families,” Romney told reporters Friday in Iowa.
So far this election cycle, he’s endorsed or donated money to some 20 candidates, many of them GOP establishment favorites who backed Romney in his White House runs.
Ernst is different.
The state senator and lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard has the backing of both the tea party movement and establishment Republicans.
In the past few days, the political wing of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which often backs conservative candidates that launch primary challenges against incumbent Republican senators, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which mainly endorses mainstream Republicans, both went up with statewide ad buys in support of Ernst.
She grabbed national attention earlier this year by touting her hog castrating skills in a campaign commercial.
“Smart politics by Ernst to bring Romney to eastern Iowa and two counties that were Romney strongholds during the caucuses,” said Iowa Republican consultant Matt Strawn, a former chairman of the state GOP.
Ernst is facing off against three other major candidates in next Tuesday’s primary – businessman Mark Jacobs, former U.S. Attorney Matthew Whitaker, and conservative radio talk show host Sam Clovis. If no candidate cracks 35% of the GOP primary vote, the nomination will be decided by around 2,000 delegates at a state party convention.
Romney’s visit to Iowa four days before the primary could pay dividends for Ernst.
“For a candidate like Ernst, who was largely unknown to Iowa’s business and donor community before running, the Romney endorsement provided a boost of credibility with that important constituency. It was particularly important given her main primary opponent, businessman Mark Jacobs, was counting on that same constituency to be a cornerstone of his campaign,” Strawn added.
Romney also stars in an on-line ad put out by the Chamber of Commerce Thursday that backs Ernst.
“I know Iowa’s ready to play a crucial part in this year’s elections and send a leader to Washington who will demand fiscal responsibility. Thankfully, Iowa conservatives have such a leader in Jodi Ernst,” Romney says in the spot.
The GOP nominee will face off in the midterm elections against Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, who faces token opposition in his party’s primary. The winner of November’s general election will succeed longtime Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who is retiring at the end of the year. If Republicans flip Harkin’s seat, and five other Democratic held seats, they will control the Senate.
Romney’s winning picks
So far the candidates Romney’s backed are coming out on top in their primary showdowns.
Romney endorsed and recorded a robo call for Dr. Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon who won last week’s GOP Senate primary in Oregon over a more conservative state lawmaker. The same night eight-term Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho beat back a serious primary challenge from a tea party backed candidate. Romney had endorsed Simpson and starred in a television commercial put out by the Chamber of Commerce that backed Simpson.
Asked Friday about his winning track record when it comes to primary endorsements, Romney told reporters “I wish I can take credit for that. The candidates take credit for that and I am sure we will have some successes and some that are not successful.”
In California, two other candidates Romney’s supporting face primary showdowns on Tuesday. Former California state lawmaker Tony Strickland, who backed Romney in his presidential campaigns, is running for an open U.S. House seat long held by the GOP. Romney is expected to record a robo call for Strickland before the primary.
And Romney’s also backing former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari, one of the Republicans challenging Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, the overwhelming favorite to win re-election this year. In California, the top two finishers in next week’s primary, regardless of their political party, will face off in November’s general election.
Earlier this week, Romney gave his blessing to Elise Stefanik, who’s running for the party nomination in New York’s 21st Congressional District. The state’s primary is June 24. Stefanik was an aide on the 2012 campaign of Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Colorado also holds its primary on June 24. Romney’s backing former Rep. Bob Beauprez in the state’s GOP gubernatorial showdown. Beauprez was a major Romney surrogate in Colorado in 2012. And earlier this week, he traveled to the state to help raise money for Rep. Mike Coffman, who faces a difficult re-election in November.
Romney’s new role
Romney stayed far from the political spotlight following his bruising defeat to Obama. But starting last spring when he hosted a summit in Park City Utah of some major political and business leaders, and last summer, when he headlined a fundraiser for the New Hampshire Republican Party, he’s been getting more involved in shaping the future of his party and guiding the national conversation.
“By now, endorsing GOP candidates who have stood proudly with him over the last several years, the governor is sending a clear message that he remains an essential Republican leader in 2014,” veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist Jim Merrill recently told CNN.
With the two living former Republican presidents, George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, both staying far from the political conversation, Romney has begun to fill the void.
“Mitt Romney is the most prominent and engaged elder statesman the GOP has on the national stage right now,” added Merrill, who was a top adviser to him in the Granite State in his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.
Those close to Romney also add that his focus is helping others rather than polishing his legacy.
“The governor is the same guy he’s always been, he wants to make a difference where and when he can,” said Todd Cranney, the 2012 Romney campaign’s deputy political director. “He wants to help friends who helped him in the past. But he also wants to be helpful to the Republican Party and to try and get the country back on track.”
But some grassroots conservatives aren’t so excited about Romney’s increased involvement in party politics.
“Romney needs to go quietly into retirement. Let him spend time with his wife, his kids and grandkids but stay the hell out of the Republican Party,” Judson Phillips, founder of the Tea Party Nation, a national tea party group, recently told CNN.
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