Did GOPers fear the Romney juggernaut?

Ben Smith makes the case today that Mitt Romney is a much stronger presidential candidate than many give him credit for. As Smith sees it, the former governor is “the perfect challenger,” and “it’s hard to imagine a stronger Republican candidate emerging this early in the cycle.”

I didn’t find the piece especially persuasive — Smith seems a little too quick to dismiss major Romney shortcomings — but there was one observation in particular that stood out for me.

“This weak field showed it’s incredibly easy to throw him off his game,” Adam Jentleson, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, tweeted Wednesday night.

But Romney didn’t just face a weak field — he made it weak. His strength, money, and organization scared off some serious challengers.

Smith didn’t reference anything to support this claim, and I’m curious — is there any evidence at all to back this up?

I don’t mean that in a snarky way; I’m genuinely curious.

Most objective observers seem to agree that the Republican field is not only weak, but probably the worst of any major party in the modern political era. Smith argues that Romney’s strength as a candidate caused the paucity of quality challengers — would-be candidates took one look at the former one-term governor and presumably thought, “What chance do I have in Republican primaries against the flip-flopping, French-speaking architect of Obamacare?”

Smith tends to have pretty solid sources, so it’s possible he can speak to the internal deliberations of various would-be candidates, but there were some fairly prominent Republicans — Mitch Daniels, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Haley Barbour, John Thune, Mike Pence, Bobby Jindal, Bob Corker, Jeb Bush, Sarah Palin — who all took a good look at the race before deciding not to run.

Did all of these Republicans stand aside because they were intimidated by the Romney juggernaut? Were any of them actually scared of Romney?

If I had to guess, I’d say no. Throughout 2011, much of the Republican establishment sought credible Romney rivals, in large part because he didn’t look particularly strong. Hell, as recently as a couple of weeks ago, there was still scuttlebutt about a brokered convention, with key GOP figures still hoping to nominate someone else. Rick Perry was convinced to jump in precisely because Romney wasn’t an imposing political force.

Romney scared away credible Republican opponents? I don’t see it. The more likely scenario to me is that those interested in a national campaign saw President Obama as tough to beat, were content to see Romney lose, and decided to keep their eyes on 2016.