Four years ago, Mitt Romney used his appearance at CPAC – the big, annual Conservative Political Action Conference here in Washington – to drop out of the presidential race. Then, he was the conservative alternative to the eventual nominee, John McCain. And when Mr. Romney made his announcement, the crowd groaned with disappointment.
How things have changed. In 2012, Romney is seen as the moderate in the presidential race. And his address at CPAC on Friday is his chance to create enthusiasm for his campaign among the conservative base.
Since Mr. Romney’s stunning loss in three, albeit non-binding, contests on Tuesday, the political universe has been buzzing with advice: Project a “vision.” Stop reciting the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” – we get it, you’re patriotic. Explain how you would change Washington in moral terms, don’t treat it a management problem.
The list goes on and on. But the problem is real: Romney on the stump can utterly fail to inspire. At times he succeeds.
Republican strategist Whit Ayres, who polled for the campaign of Jon Huntsman Jr. and is now unaligned, points to Romney’s remarks after winning the New Hampshire primary as his best speech yet. Riffing on the theme of a future that is “brighter and better than these troubled times,” Romney stood up for free enterprise – a bow to his background in the private sector – and rejected “the bitter politics of envy.”
“Make no mistake, in this campaign, I will offer the American ideals of economic freedom a clear and unapologetic defense,” Romney said. “Our campaign is about more than replacing a president; it is about saving the soul of America.”
The Romney campaign has promised the candidate will get more specific about his proposals as the campaign goes on. And expectations are high that he will use his CPAC speech to lay the rhetorical groundwork for the next phase of the campaign.
“He has to do no harm,” says Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.
“What can he say that would really get people’s attention? Apologize for Romneycare," says Mr. Mackowiak, referring to the health-care reform that Romney implemented as governor of Massachusetts and which was the model for President Obama’s reform. “He can’t do that, of course. He wrote a book called ‘No Apology.’ He’s been accused of being a flip-flopper. But if he wants to allay concerns that he’s not a moderate sheep in conservative wolf’s clothing, that would be it.”
Saul Anuzis, former Michigan GOP chairman and a Romney supporter, suggests more stylistic changes to Romney’s approach on Friday rather than any eyebrow-raising policy pronouncements. Romney has spoken to CPAC before, and therefore understands the audience, he says.
“People here are looking for his passion, his convictions,” says Mr. Anuzis. “He has to speak from the heart and let people know what he believes in. There is a lot of concern about the fact that Mitt Romney is not a movement conservative. But he shares the values of the people who are here, and I think he just has to articulate that and let people know that he’s sincere and committed to upholding those values.”
Ethan Hollenberger, a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, voted for Romney in the CPAC straw poll, because of Romney's executive experience, though he’s not certain of whom to support in the primaries.
So what can Romney say on Friday that will make Mr. Hollenberger feel more comfortable with him?
“People want to hear him say that Romneycare failed,” he says. “He doesn’t have to apologize, he can just say that it hasn’t worked. He should also talk about social issues. No one disagrees with him on fiscal issues.”
Among the most committed conservatives at CPAC, Romney faces a steep climb in his speech on Friday. Jamie Radtke, a tea party leader from Virginia who’s running for the Senate, thinks long and hard before answering a question on what Romney can say that would reassure her.
“I don’t know what Mitt Romney can do to win over this crowd,” Ms. Radtke says. “When it’s one conservative versus Mitt Romney, the conservative seems to win pretty handily. I guess he needs a more focused message. A 50-page economic proposal doesn’t cut it.”
The results of the CPAC straw poll will be announced on Saturday, and it’s anybody’s guess who will win. Last year, Ron Paul won, with a heavy contingent of supporters in attendance. This year, Congressman Paul isn’t even attending CPAC, choosing instead to campaign in Maine. His son, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, addressed the conference on Thursday.
This isn’t Romney’s crowd – very few attendees are sporting Romney stickers – and it’s conceivable he could come in last. If he does, that would be embarrassing. In his ideal world, he will do well enough among CPAC-ers – his best friends four years ago, after all – that the conference doesn’t add to the perception problem that Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri have already given him.