One year after he told CPAC that he had been a “severely conservative” governor, Mitt Romney returned to the conservative gathering as a severely defeated candidate.
Stepping back onto the public stage to a sustained standing ovation, the former Republican nominee said it was time to “take back the nation, take back the White House, get the Senate, and put in place conservative principles.”
Romney acknowledged up front that he was “disappointed” at losing to President Obama. And he said it was “fashionable in some circles” to be pessimistic about America and about the Republican Party.
“I utterly reject pessimism,” he said. “My optimism about America wasn’t diminished by my campaign. In fact, it grew.”
Romney gave a rhetorical bow toward those he once dismissed at a secretly recorded fundraiser as the 47 percent: single moms working two jobs, dads who don’t know what a weekend is.
It was a crisp and energetic speech from the man who carried the party’s banner but went into virtual seclusion after Election Day, emerging only for a recent interview on Fox News.
He acknowledged that elephant in the room, saying the man who lost the last election probably wasn’t in the best position to offer advice on winning the next one.
Instead, Romney praised GOP governors from Michigan’s Rick Snyder to Ohio’s John Kasich to New Jersey’s Chris Christie—who pointedly wasn’t invited to CPAC. He also hailed the “clear and convincing voice” of his running mate, Paul Ryan.
The former Massachusetts governor stuck to generalities, delivering a paean to America and its use of military force “for liberation, not conquest.”
Romney said he was proud of “our immigrant heritage,” describing the success of a Cambodian immigrant who went on to become a U.S. ambassador. But he quite noticeably did not address the question of illegal immigration, where his harsh rhetoric last year damaged the party among Hispanic voters.
Romney drew his loudest applause with something of an apology:
“I’m sorry I won’t be your president, but I will be your coworker and work shoulder-to-shoulder alongside you.”
Whether or not that signaled a higher-profile return to politics, it was a good exit line that roused the CPAC crowd.
If you blinked, you might have thought you were back in the thick of the 2012 primaries. Romney was preceded at the microphone by Rick Santorum, who finished second during the long slog.
In an unusually personal speech, the former Pennsylvania senator began by describing the “last breaths” of a young nephew who recently died, pivoting from that tragedy to what he called the mind-set of “a government program to address almost every pain.”
Santorum moved from the “psychological and moral pain and suffering” of the nephew’s family to this: “We have to fight for those who are suffering and are being left behind. They don’t want government money.” What they want, he said, is “your caring, your mentoring, your love.”
That vision contrasted with Santorum’s jibe at the other side: “The left can always promise more stuff and make it sound like they care more.”
Santorum was greeted like a rock star at last year’s CPAC when his long-shot presidential candidacy was beginning to surge in the wake of his upset victory in Iowa. This year, he was greeted rather tepidly, but after his somewhat spiritual speech gained altitude, he left the stage to loud cheers.