In his first major public address since losing last November’s presidential race, Mitt Romney offered gratitude and some advice to a ballroom full of enthusiastic conservative activists Friday.
“Now, as someone who just lost the last election, I'm probably not in the best position to chart the course for the next one,” Mr. Romney said to laughter at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC.
Then he made a well-received strong pitch to follow the lead of the Republican governors.
“Perhaps because I'm a former governor, I would urge us all to learn lessons that come from some of our greatest success stories,” Romney said. “And that's 30 Republican governors across the country.”
He pointed in particular to Republican governors in Democratic-leaning and swing states, such as New Jersey, Virginia, Ohio, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Nevada. Notably, two of those governors – Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bob McDonnell of Virginia – were not invited to speak at CPAC, presumably because of recent actions that broke with conservative orthodoxy.
Romney’s reception at CPAC was perhaps his warmest yet for a man who governed Massachusetts as a moderate and who has had a mixed relationship with conservatives over the years. The crowd cheered and stood when he took the stage, and stood again as he finished.
Overall, the CPAC crowd – many of them college students – was energetic and attentive, happy to be among like-minded people and receiving the attentions of leading conservative political figures.
Last year, Romney raised eyebrows when he told CPAC he had been a “severely conservative governor.” But he went on to win the group’s annual presidential straw poll anyway, though just barely, beating former Sen. Rick Santorum, 38 percent to 31 percent. Romney had also won the CPAC straw poll from 2007 to 2009. In 2008, when he lost the Republican nomination to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, he was seen as the conservative alternative.
In 2013, it was a different Romney who took the CPAC stage, held this year at a big convention center in suburban Maryland. He looked tanned and rested, not so much eager to please as eager to stay involved as the Republicans seek to recover from last November’s failures.
Romney acknowledged mistakes, but did not go into specifics.
"Of course, I left the race disappointed that I didn't win,” he said, adding that he was “honored and humbled to have represented the values we believe in.”
“You are a winner!” an audience member shouted.
“It's up to us to make sure that we learn from our mistakes and my mistakes and that we take advantage of that learning to make sure that we take back the nation, take back the White House, get the Senate, and put in place conservative principles,” Romney said.
He gave shout-outs to numerous GOP governors, citing the actions of some.
“Gov. Nathan Deal in Georgia secured a constitutional amendment that makes sure they can have charter schools,” Romney said. “Gov. Rick Snyder – [cheers, applause] – got in place right-to-work legislation in Michigan. [Cheers, applause.] A number of these Republican governors were able to secure tort reform, and a whole horde of Republican governors inherited budgets that were badly out of balance and have replaced deficits with surpluses.”
Romney also spoke fondly of his former running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin. But earlier in the day, when Congressman Ryan spoke from the same podium, Romney’s name did not come up. Instead, Ryan wore his hat as chairman of the House Budget Committee, lampooning the budget released earlier this week by Senate Democrats.
“When you read it, you find that the Vatican's not the only place blowing smoke this week,” said Ryan, a possible contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
It was the job of a CPAC panel Thursday morning to examine what went wrong in the 2012 race. The segment was called “CSI Washington, D.C.: November 2012 Autopsy.”
Tucker Carlson, the moderator and editor of The Daily Caller website, called the Romney campaign “a totally mediocre effort.”
“Some of it was the consultants, but ultimately the candidate selects the consultants,” said panelist John Fund, a writer at The American Spectator.
On Thursday, the first day of CPAC, one of the panels was called “Should We Shoot All the Consultants Now?” Friday’s autopsy panel agreed it wasn’t necessary to go that far. But panel members didn’t struggle to put forth other ideas. For starters, they agreed that the Democrats cleaned the Republicans’ clocks with their use of data, technology, and micro-targeting.
“I would suggest the Republican Party probably needs a more gritty, populist approach to dealing with the electorate,” said Mr. Fund.
Former Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R) of New York, who lost reelection in November after serving one term, made a plea for more outreach to women and minorities – but not to apologize for being conservative.
“[Republicans] have to understand that the days of the good old boy party, the days of the establishment … are forever gone,” said Ms. Buerkle, who was elected in 2010 on a wave of tea party support.
“If they don’t embrace change,” she added, “the party will become extinct.”
Fund suggested this year’s gubernatorial race in Virginia, which is expected to be competitive, is a good place to start.
“The road to 2016 is through Virginia,” he said. “The way to come back is to win, the way to win is to absorb the lessons of 2012 and use them in 2013. The best place to begin that is right across the river in Virginia.”
On Monday, the Republican National Committee will release its own “autopsy” on what went wrong last November.