WASHINGTON—Organizers of an annual conservative Republican gathering this week on the edge of the Potomac River have photographs of Marco Rubio, Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan, and Rand Paul emblazoned across the top of their website with the headline, “America’s Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives.”

Mitt Romney, last year’s GOP presidential nominee, meanwhile, is just another face in the crowd, listed alphabetically a few screens down, among several dozen other speakers and coming just before Wayne Allyn Root, the 2008 libertarian nominee for vice president.

That is just one indication of the potentially awkward return to the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference—part of a slowly unfolding effort to repair his image within the party after his loss in last year’s campaign.

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Romney sat down for an in-depth interview with Fox News two weeks ago. On Friday, in his first public speech since his defeat, he will stand publicly before conservatives, some of whom remain hostile. In a foreshadowing of the event, the Tea Party online news site “Conservative HQ” ran a piece March 1 headlined, “Romney Must Apologize at CPAC.”

“He should then apologize to the assembled conservative activists, and Americans in general, for running a content-free campaign that inflicted four more years of Barack Obama and his radical secular liberal agenda on a country already being bled white by the wounds inflicted during Obama’s first term,” the column read.

CPAC is the same conference where Romney officially dropped out of the Republican primary race in 2008. Last year, he said at the conference that he had been a “severely conservative Republican governor.” Even though he built a reputation as a Massachusetts moderate governor and drew suspicion from conservatives during his presidential campaigns, he has typically been treated respectfully at CPAC, winning at least polite applause.

The annual conference is one part boardroom discussion about the state of their party and one part raucous political carnival fill with GOP luminaries—and it’s frequently a gauge of whose stock is rising within the party, and whose stock is falling.

“CPAC has been very good to Mitt Romney over the years and this is an opportunity for him to go back and express his appreciation,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a longtime Romney adviser. “Mitt won CPAC’s straw poll four times in the last six years, including in 2012, when it helped stop Rick Santorum’s momentum at a critical moment in the primary campaign.”

Former advisers expect Romney will talk about the economy, the issue that guided him during the campaign. Budget and tax issues still dominate the debate in Washington, which Romney had made a centerpiece of his campaign.

They said that in choosing CPAC as his first public speech since the election, Romney would have a venue to address a crowd of conservatives that at time has sparked controversy. It is harder for him to be seen as pandering, the thinking goes, if he’s not seeking any office.

“There was always an undercurrent with him going to CPAC,” said Tom Rath, a longtime New Hampshire-based adviser to Romney. “To go back and be able to be full-throated in a situation where he’s seen as not seeking personal or political advantage might make sense.”

Still, the situation is not without potential awkwardness, like running into a former girlfriend several months after a breakup.

Romney is the candidate who talked about “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants, and now he’s speaking to a party trying to be more accommodating on immigration reform. He’s the candidate who derided the “47 percent” for being too dependent on government, now speaking to a party trying to expand its tent and broaden its electoral appeal.

After a disappointing election in November, Republicans are eager to look forward, not back.

Friday will mark his first public speech since the wee hours of Nov. 7, when he conceded the election to Barack Obama in a half-filled ballroom in Boston.

Romney will speak on Friday at 1 p.m. in the Potomac Ballroom of the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center just outside Washington. At the same time, there will be a group session on “How to Get a Job in Politics,” and a book signing by the author of “Divider-in-Chief: The Fraud of Hope and Change.”

The conference that day will also feature speeches by business mogul and entertainer Donald Trump, National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre, former Senator Rick Santorum, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was not invited to speak, drawing some controversy that such a prominent Republican – but one who has drawn the ire of conservatives – would not been encouraged to come to the conference.

Since dropping out of the race, Romney has largely kept out of the public eye. He has attended several private gatherings with donors, thanking them for their support and pledging to stay involved in politics. He has said he has no plans to run for office again himself, but he would support like-minded candidates and weigh in on issue he cares about.

He gave his first interview to Fox News Sunday, sitting down with Chris Wallace two weeks ago and acknowledging a series of missteps in his campaign and conceding “it kills me” to have lost.

“There’s no real cliff notes guide for how you be an ex-candidate for president without having an office to hold. So I think he’s trying to feel his way,” Rath said. “He’s still incredibly active and bright and creative mind. I think having played at the level that he played you just can’t shut that off.”

Romney has also rejoined the board of the Marriott hotel chain, and last week took a part-time role at Solamere Capital, the Boston-based financial firm started by Romney’s oldest son, Tagg.