You could call Mitt Romney’s return to this annual gathering of the conservative faithful a homecoming because he was well-received here during his presidential bids. He always came in first or second in the Conservative Political Action Conference’s straw poll, and he received enthusiastic standing ovations on Friday.
But the truth is that the reformed moderate from Massachusetts was never quite at home among movement conservatives -- though he tried very, very hard, describing himself as a “severely conservative Republican governor” at last year’s conference. His patrician demeanor also put off minorities, young people, and women. For a man who always looks great in a suit, Romney always looked uncomfortable in his own skin on the campaign trail.
His first public speech since his November defeat was as lackluster as most of his stump speeches and as about as forgettable as his candidacy. He will be better remembered for what he did wrong (“47 percent” and “self-deportation”) than what he did right (his first debate against President Obama). He was a transitional, not a transformational nominee.
Romney acknowledged that himself, saying, “As someone who just lost the last election, I’m probably not the person to chart the course for the next one.” Earlier he said, “It’s up to us to make sure we learn from our mistakes and my mistakes and take advantage of that learning and take back the White House.”
While a high-profile speech in front of the national media might look like a reentry into politics, Romney’s appearance was more about thanking his supporters and perhaps trying to smooth out some of the rough edges of a losing campaign. Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC, is a close ally of Romney and urged him to attend.
But leave it to the awkward former presidential nominee, praising the work of Republican governors, to name-drop Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Chris Christie of New Jersey, whose exclusion from the conference has been widely criticized.
“Make sure their message is heard loud and clear across the country,” said Romney, who also listed about a half-dozen other governors.
Though Romney’s tone suggested that McDonnell and Christie deserved to be on a short list of the best governors, the reference to the notably absent governors was a reminder of the tin ear Romney sometimes exhibited during the campaign.
Three hours before his speech, a panel titled “CSI Washington, DC: November 2012 Autopsy” dissected all of his missteps and mistakes: his dismal showing among minorities; his campaign’s technological inadequacies; his inability to connect with ordinary people. On Thursday, one of his former rivals, Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggested that his problem was more ideological and slung this zinger: "The popular media narrative is that this country has shifted away from conservative ideas, as evidence by the last two presidential elections. That might actually be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates in 2008 and 2012."
Romney got 82 percent of the conservative vote in the 2012 election, 2 percentage points less than George W. Bush in 2004 and 4 percentage points more than John McCain in 2008. But amid all the Monday-morning quarterbacking and soul-searching and hand-wringing about what went wrong -- Obama’s superior ground game, Romney’s downbeat focus on the economy despite small improvements, the changing electorate -- the bottom line is that Romney was a weak candidate.
Still, withstanding the rigors of two presidential campaigns is worthy of praise. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley gave Romney a rousing introduction, calling him a “true servant leader” for returning to CPAC after a tough loss. She praised his love of faith, family, and country and urged the crowd to stand and give him a big round of applause. The appreciative audience probably would have stood anyway.
“You test my heart again. Thank you so very much,” said Romney, who appeared visibly moved. “What a sight you are. What a privilege to be here with you again. How much I appreciate your earnest support and your help.”
Romney tried to close the 2012 election on a positive note. As if he were still on the campaign trail, he turned to hopeful anecdotes about real people finding success amid adversity. “We haven’t lost the country we love,” he said, “and we have not lost our way.” While Romney offered to work “shoulder to shoulder” to rebuild the party, he is likely to serve more as a cautionary tale than as a leader paving the way.
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