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During the next three days, some leading contenders for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination will rub elbows with wealthy donors and business leaders in Mitt Romney's annual Deer Valley retreat.

Romney launched the "Experts and Enthusiasts" gathering, or E2 Summit, on the heels of his failed 2012 White House bid, an effort to maintain his political network. It has since become a growing and evolving event in the ritzy resort town.

"Twisting arms to get people to come to Deer Valley in June is not a hard sell," said Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who has attended past get-togethers. "It's fun, it's entertaining, it's informative, and it's inspiring. You get this whole array of very high-profile people who have done amazing things with their lives."

Several of the GOP's presidential front-runners — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are all reportedly expected to be on hand for the three-day gathering beginning Thursday, which combines lectures from prominent leaders and a chance for candidates to schmooze with deep-pocketed potential donors.

"The fact that Mitt Romney is still doing these kind of things suggests he still wants to have a hand in politics, he still wants to be involved in what's going on, and it shows he still has a lot of credibility in the party," said Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University.

"For many of these candidates, it's an opportunity to seek out Mitt Romney's support. … It's undoubtedly great for a candidate to have Mitt Romney's endorsement," Cann said, "but if they can get Romney to help introduce them to donors and fundraisers in a way like Mitt Romney fundraised four years ago, then that would be a tremendous benefit."

Three top candidates — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — will not attend. Bush was traveling in Europe; Paul is in California this week.

"You have not only high-profile people, but also people who have the ability to write checks and they know people who have the ability to write big checks," said Chaffetz, who hasn't decided whether he will be able to make it this year. "But it's not just fundraising. It's an array of people who are very influential in their own sphere."

One of the guest speakers at this year's gathering is David Axelrod, the campaign manager for President Barack Obama's 2012 victory that dashed Romney's White House hopes. Other guest lecturers include former NBA Commissioner David Stern; Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute; former Defense Secretary Robert Gates; GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt; and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers.

News media from across the country will be outside the sessions — which are closed to the public and the press.

Boyd Matheson, chief of staff to Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who has attended past gatherings and plans to go this year, said the privacy fosters candid dialogue in a way that might not happen if cameras and reporters were in the room.

He said it also offers an opportunity to highlight the "Utah model" of governing — business friendly and with a lighter regulatory grip ­— to corporate leaders and top politicos.

"One of [the candidates] is going to have to be the nominee and have to run on an agenda," Matheson said, "and the Utah model is a good model to be running on."

Cann agreed gatherings such as the E2 Summit can showcase a state that was "really kind of a flyover state" before the Romney campaign started staging this sort of event.

"It's nice that the candidates are coming to Utah and are going to have some experience in Utah," Cann said. "And if we have people from Utah who are getting involved with the candidates and the campaigns, then that could have some benefit for the state down the road."

Twitter: @RobertGehrke