After three decades of seamless career hopping -- from Bain Capital to the Olympic Games, from governor of Massachusetts to a six-year pursuit of the presidency -- Romney is now a restless chief executive with no organization to run.
During a meeting at his campaign headquarters in Boston hours after conceding to President Obama, Romney told his staff members that they had just witnessed his last political campaign. But he vowed, in the words of two people in the room, that "I will not fall off the map."
For now Romney, 65, seems absorbed by the present, turning over in his head a public rejection whose depth caught him by surprise.
At a breakfast Wednesday for a couple of hundred of his most loyal and affluent donors, he reminisced about the journey and tried not to cry. He waxed about the roaring crowds in the campaign's closing days and the feeling that he was winning, donors said. He marveled at the Obama campaign's ability to turn out such a large volume of voters on Election Day, though at times by using strategies that he said had unfairly maligned him.
He even took a gentle swipe at the media, mocking what he said were inaccurate articles suggesting that his oldest son, Tagg, had staged an intervention to fix a tottering campaign.
"He will be sifting through this for quite a while," said Kirk Jowers, a Romney friend. "The question is when the sifting takes a couple of hours a day instead of being all consuming."
Even his own aides said it was hard to know precisely how Romney, an unsparing self-critic, would respond to a loss that had such a personal dimension. It was his second run, and he had believed, until the very end, that he was ever so close to fulfilling the dream of his father, George, whose own presidential aspirations fell short in 1968.
Few of them can imagine him following the path of, say, Bob Dole, who traded in the title of Republican nominee to become a lobbyist and a pitchman for Viagra. Or Al Gore, who accepted his loss in public, then descended into a private slump, growing a beard and putting on weight before slowly finding his passion in environmental advocacy that won him a Nobel Peace Prize.
"The only door that is closed to Mitt Romney for the remainder of his life is being president of the United States," said Steve Schmidt, a campaign adviser to Sen. John McCain in 2008. "He can do whatever else he wants to do."
He had a warning, though. He said, "Losing a presidential campaign is something you never get over. The question is whether you can move forward without bitterness or rancor."
Bitterness, of course, may be inevitable. Obama and McCain made some halfhearted efforts at post-election comity four years ago, but have subsequently kept a distance. It is unclear whether the president's election-night promise to sit down with Romney was anything more than a polite gesture.
There will probably be no shortage of lucrative offers for Romney, who has not taken a steady paycheck since 1999, when he left Bain Capital to run the Salt Lake City Olympics, friends said.
"He's a hot commodity to me," said Julian H. Robertson, a hedge fund titan.
Just how hot became evident in 2008, when Robertson offered Romney $30 million a year to run his firm, Tiger Management, said people familiar with the discussions. Romney, who had his eye on a second White House bid, declined.
Back then, several aides held an improvised career counseling session with Romney. They figured he would run for president but threw out a series of suggestions anyway. Why not run an auto company like Ford or General Motors, they asked. Or start a research group devoted to energy independence.
Today, the car company option seems unlikely, given Romney's opposition to the federal bailout of U.S. car companies. But aides said that he would be receptive to a high-profile job in the private sector, the advocacy world or academia.
"I know he will do something," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a longtime Romney political adviser. "I just don't know what it will be."
Not on his list of likely jobs: punditry. Friends said Romney could not imagine following the well-worn path of defeated candidates to Fox News.
There will be a few vacations. During the breakfast, Romney told an old friend, Fraser Bullock, that he was looking forward to skiing in Utah.
For now, he has shown up at his campaign headquarters every day since the election. He arranged for his staff to receive severance pay through the end of November. His No. 1 priority, so far: establishing a system to organize the 400 resumes of those staff members whose paychecks will run out in 21 days.
The Washington Post contributed to this report.