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Romney, Yesterday's Man At CPAC, Gets A Winner's Reception

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney leaves the stage after speaking Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland's National Harbor.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney leaves the stage after speaking Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland's National Harbor.

It was one of the most anticipated moments at this year's large gathering of conservative activists.

What would Mitt Romney say in his first major speech since he lost the presidential election and, even more importantly, how would the crowd treat him?

After all, many of the Republicans attending the Conservative Political Action Conference had long harbored suspicions about Romney's conservatism, wondering if it wasn't more a matter of convenience and political opportunity than conviction. Which explains why when Romney spoke to CPAC a year ago, he described himself, controversially, as "severely conservative."

Indeed, the man who spoke immediately before Romney, Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, did much to raise those suspicions during last year's Republican presidential primaries.

But if Romney entered the cavernous room at a hotel convention center in suburban Washington with any worries about how he would be received, the enthusiastic reception should have put them to rest.

The cheers, applause and hoots of approval for Romney on Friday were at least as loud and sustained as those that on Thursday had greeted Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, two of the party's newest rock stars and likely 2016 presidential contenders. It was the kind of heady reaction Romney drew from the party faithful in those days after he roundly beat President Obama in the first debate.

Romney, whose voice seemed to quaver at times with emotion, sought to be a uniter, at least within his party, keenly aware that his failure to win the White House made him yesterday's man. Romney said:

"Like you, I believe a conservative vision can attract a majority of Americans and form a governing coalition of renewal and reform. As someone who just lost the last election, I'm probably not the best person to chart the course for the next election. That said, I do have advice. Perhaps because I am a former governor, I would urge you to learn the lessons that come from some of our greatest success stories: the 30 Republican governors."

Among the governors he cited were two who were high-profile supporters of his presidential campaign, Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Chris Christie of New Jersey, widely perceived as having been slighted by CPAC's organizer, the American Conservative Union, for allegedly departing from conservative orthodoxy. McDonnell agreed to raise taxes in his state to fund transportation, while, just before the election, Christie praised Obama's response to Superstorm Sandy and later criticized congressional Republicans for delaying aid for its victims.

Romney's message to conservatives could be interpreted as a warning to stop devouring their own, especially governors in blue or purple states, "because their states are among those we must win to take the Senate and the White House," he said.

It seemed partly a concession speech: "I am sorry that I will not be your president," he said, as though it was election night and Inauguration Day were still off in the future. And it seemed partly the presidential inauguration speech he would never give: "Today, history and duty summon us again."

More than once, audience members shouted, "We love you, Mitt." After the speech, the warm feeling continued in the corridor outside the room where he spoke.

"He's an amazing man," said Jean Jordan of Virginia. "I'm saddened that he wasn't elected president, because we need his outlook and healing to come to our country. He's going to go forward, and, like he said, he's going to be there to help us and there for the good of the country."

Matthew Holdi, a 16-year-old who left school early to see the speech, and who could be accurately called a Romney superfan, also was impressed.

"In contrast with last year where the context of his speech was lost in the midst of the 'severely conservative' comment that he made, this year had no perceptible gaffes along the lines of that.

"I was impressed by the reception he received," said Holdi, who seemed quite politically savvy for his age. "I thought I would be the only person here not booing him. Politico reported that he was receiving B treatment, given the [midday] time period that he had. But when he got a standing ovation, and the beginning of his speech, at the end of his speech, it was inspirational."

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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