ATLANTA -- Almost two years after his 2012 Election Day drubbing, Mitt Romney is the Republican man in demand.
The twice-defeated White House contender is in the midst of a busy midterm campaign schedule, covering seven states and nearly 6,000 miles in five days to raise money and energy for Republican midterm candidates from Georgia to Colorado.
Romney has repeatedly said he's not running for president again, and his closest aides laugh off a possible 2016 bid. But top GOP strategists and donors suggest his continued high profile in Republican politics highlights the party's murky future and a crowded 2016 field that is both flawed and without a clear front-runner.
"There's a vacuum," said John Jordan, a major Republican donor based in California. "When there's 10 people in a possible presidential field, it's difficult for anyone to look presidential. None of these figures is overly compelling."
And even Romney's denials have been just short of absolute. As he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in August, he's not interested in another presidential bid - but "circumstances can change."
Just a month before the unofficial beginning of the next presidential primary season, Democrats have already begun to rally behind prospective candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. The race for the Republican nomination, meanwhile, is as wide open as most political veterans can remember.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had begun to assume a party leadership role before the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal tainted his brand. Major questions persist about former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's commitment to the 2016 contest, though his brother, former President George W. Bush, told Fox News on Thursday that he believes his brother "wants to be president." And the rest of the potential field features conservatives, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who have passionate supporters among the Republican base but have yet to demonstrate more widespread appeal.
That leaves Romney as this season's strongest draw for Republican midterm candidates battling for control of Congress.
He earned a rock star's reception on Wednesday at The Varsity, a landmark Atlanta restaurant, where he campaigned alongside Attorney General Sam Olens after headlining a closed-door fundraiser for Senate candidate David Perdue.
Perdue is facing Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, who's waging a competitive bid in a relatively conservative state. Polls have shown her within striking distance of Perdue. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to seize control of the Senate.
Romney shook hands and autographed paper plates at The Varsity before ordering a hot dog and onion rings as diners snapped pictures.
In thanking Romney for making the trip, Olen said, "I wish you were on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave."
"I'm just sad I'm not able to be there either," Romney said, responding to a reporter's question about his interest in another run. "I'd like to be in the White House. I wish I would have had the chance."
The appearance was just one stop in an aggressive five-day campaign swing covering some of the nation's premier midterm battlegrounds: Colorado, Virginia, Georgia, Oklahoma, Michigan, Kentucky and Louisiana. After trading his private campaign plane for commercial travel, Romney is working long days to attend private fundraisers and public rallies to help leading Republican governors, Senate candidates and former allies like Olens.
Talking to reporters Wednesday, Romney tried to tamp down talk that he might be the future of the Republican Party, citing "a whole series of different voices that are pulling in different directions."
"My role is just as one more voice," he said. "I was honored to become the Republican nominee, so I continue to have some voice. But I'm not running for anything - just trying to run to help people who are running for something, and I'm making my effort known in the states that welcome me."
On Thursday, he'll headline a GOP rally in Michigan before a Kentucky fundraiser to benefit Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who's facing a stiff challenge from Kentucky's Democratic secretary of state, Alison Lundergan Grimes. It's the kind of schedule usually reserved for a political party's elite, not a twice-defeated elder statesman who insists his political career is over.
"The wandering eyes for Romney are a byproduct of the uncertainty of the field," said former Romney aide Kevin Madden, who described Romney as a "known commodity."
Hogan Gidley, a South Carolina-based veteran of presidential politics, explained Romney's appeal with a sports analogy.
"The most popular player on a football team is the backup quarterback when your team's struggling," Gidley said. "The party is struggling."
Romney has offered similar analysis himself, telling supporters and donors in June during a summit in Park City, "The unavailable is always the most attractive, right?"
Indeed, even as the GOP's prospects this fall look good, polls suggest the party's brand is unpopular. A Gallup poll in September, for example, pegged the Republican Party's approval rating at only 40 percent. And Republican leaders have ignored recommendations to address key issues such as immigration legislation ahead of the next presidential contest.
Still, donors like Jordan say they aren't yet worried.
All the Republican hand-wringing, he said, is like retailers worrying about Christmas sales in July.