WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney returned today to a conservative gathering where his 2008 presidential campaign was both birthed and buried, helping to establish the one-time moderate Massachusetts governor as a movement favorite, a de-facto leader of an out-of-power party and a early, default front-runner for the 2012 nomination.
"We realized by last year Mitt Romney was one of the family," said David Keene, the influential head of the American Conservative Union, who introduced Romney to a standing-room only crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference. "He is more important to us today than he was last year."
In his speech, Romney reset the cornerstones of his campaign platform, warning against the excesses of liberal judges, calling for "free-market" reforms to Social Security and Medicare, and saying the President Obama’s plan to close the Guantanamo Bay prison is "the very kind of thinking that left America vulnerable to the attacks of September 11th."
At the same time, Romney addressed issues unimaginable a year ago. He declared his opposition to the $787 billion economic-stimulus package recently signed into law while tentatively recommitting his support to a financial-services bailout that has been unpopular among some on the right. In addition, Obama’s resistance to a missile-defense system had strengthened Russia's political standing regionally, he argued.
"Some critics speak as if we need to redefine conservatism," Romney said. "I think that misses the mark. America’s challenges are different from year to year, but our defining principles remain the same. Conservatives don't enter each new political era trying to figure out what we believe."
Romney, who has launched a political-action committee to help Republican candidates nationwide, will be on the ballot when conference attendees concluding voting Saturday on a 2012 presidential straw poll, an early measure of popularity among activists. Romney will compete with fellow 2008 also-rans Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani, in addition to Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who are both popular among attendees but chose not to travel to Washington for the conference.
Romney won the vote at the 2007 conference, effectively launching his campaign, and withdrew from the race here in 2008, two days after being beaten by John McCain in the Super Tuesday primaries. This year, Romney appeared to be the subject of an inadvertent tribute by the National Rifle Association, whose exhibition-hall booth shoot-‘em-up game "Varmint Town" evoked Romney's famous 2007 description of himself as a lifelong hunter of "small varmints, if you will."
An association official manning the booth insisted the game's title should not be interpreted as a continuation of campaign-season jibes -- including from McCain -- at a remark was widely seen as clumsy pander to western voters. "No, there's no inside joke about that," the official said.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.