OXON HILL, Md. — Mitt Romney left a familiar, conservative stage to a standing ovation Friday after telling a crowd that he had never fully won over as a candidate to stay its ideological course.
The speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference was Romney’s first since he conceded the presidential election to President Obama on Nov. 7. While the former Massachusetts governor admitted to mistakes in his failed White House bid, he said the Republican Party is nevertheless moving forward to “larger victories.”
“Each of us in our own way is going to have to step up and take responsibility,” Romney said. “I’m sorry I won’t be your president, but I will be your co-worker.”
Romney did not dissect his November loss as myriad analysts on both sides of the aisle have over the past four months. He added to laughs, “as someone who just lost the last election, I’m probably not in the best position to chart the course of the next one.”
But the Bay State politician did not dwell on his missteps, either. Instead, Romney stressed America’s role in projecting freedom worldwide and urged conservatives to look toward Republican governors as the future standard-bearers of the party.
“It’s fashionable in some circles to be pessimistic about America,” Romney said. “I utterly reject pessimism. We have not lost our way.”
Conservatives packed the Gaylord National Resort’s Potomac Ballroom and rose to their feet as Romney strode across the stage to his campaign song, “Born Free” by Kid Rock. He held his hand over his heart and waved to the crowd when it continued to applaud.
“I left the race disappointed that I didn’t win,” he said. “But I also left honored and humbled. We’ve lost races before in the past but those setbacks prepared us for larger victories.”
Romney is no stranger to the conservative conference, known as CPAC. It is where he announced an end to his 2008 presidential campaign, won four of the past six presidential straw polls, and — just last year — called himself a “severely conservative” governor of Massachusetts.
Republican governors are the key for the party to “take back the nation, take back the White House, take back the Senate and put in place conservative principles,” he said. They are the party’s new idea men, he added, and include New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who some say contributed to Romney’s defeat by working with Obama after Hurricane Sandy. Romney also pointed to the importance of maintaining the nation’s unparalleled military power, red meat for a conservative crowd after his campaign focused primarily on the economy. Such international clout is paramount to projecting American power in the coming decades, he said.
“In all of human history, there has never been a great power that has so often used that power to liberate others, to free captives,” Romney said. “This nation began with an idea, a noble one. Freedom flows in American veins. It inspires us to live beyond ourselves.”
The conference’s homecoming came after four months of Romney’s conspicuous absence from the national stage. Post-election discussions in GOP circles have focused on how a race seemingly within reach turned into a decisive electoral victory for an incumbent at the head of a struggling economy.
The annual meeting provides a megaphone for some of the GOP’s most prominent leaders, also attracting dozens of vendors and conservative organizations that peddle gear including Ronald Reagan calendars, antiabortion bumper stickers, and Second Amendment pins.
At the conference Thursday, two potential 2016 presidential candidates distanced themselves from Romney and 2008 GOP nominee John McCain. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida criticized Romney’s campaign directly. And libertarian Senator Rand Paul, whose 13-hour filibuster last week sparked nationwide speculation of a White House run, called for a new era of Republican leadership.
For many, Romney and his predecessor McCain represent the old guard that failed to adapt to the changing nature of political campaigns and evolving national demographics. But his reception by conservatives Friday was unexpectedly warm.
Ted Dooley, vice chairman of the Massachusetts Alliance of College Republicans, called the speech “classic Romney.” The Boston College political science student flew to the conference with a few dozen Bay State college activists.
“He was very gracious in defeat,” said Dooley, 21, of Holliston. “He’s giving advice to the next generation of candidates, the future activists, the future Karl Roves. That’s a lot of the message at CPAC.”