NATIONAL HARBOR, Mary. – Mitt Romney urged conservatives in his first public speech since November to stay on their ideological course, cautioning against post-election ennui and suggesting the Republican Party can bounce back to “larger victories.’’
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. And it marks the latest step in potentially awkward political return for a man who many Republicans believed would now sit in the White House.
“Each of us in our own way is going to have to step up and take responsibility,’’ the former Massachusetts governor said. “I’m sorry I won’t be your president, but I will be your coworker.’’
Romney didn’t analyze his November loss, adding to laughs, “as someone who just lost the next election, I’m probably not in the best position to chart the course of the next one.’’
Instead, he shared stories from the campaign trail and pointed to Republican governors as the future 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.’’
He took the stage in the Potomac Ballroom of the Gaylord National Hotel Resort to a standing ovation, holding his hand over his heart as he waved to the crowd.
“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 the end of 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 – especially those in liberal and moderate states – are the key for conservatives to “take back the nation, take back the White House, take back the Senate and put in place conservative principles,’’ he said.
Romney also pointed to the importance of maintaining unparalleled military power. Such international clout, he said, is paramount to projecting American values abroad.
“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 CPAC homecoming came after four months of his conspicuous absence from the political stage. Post-election discussions in GOP circles have focused on how a race seemingly within reach turned into a decisive electoral victory for Obama.
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 Ronald Reagan calendars, pro-life bumper stickers and Second Amendment pins.
At the conference Thursday, two potential 2016 presidential candidates distanced themselves from Romney and 2008 GOP standard bearer John McCain. 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.
““The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered,’’ the Kentucky Republican said. “I don’t think we need to name any names here, do we?’’
On Thursday, Tea Party favorite Senator Marco Rubio criticized Romney’s failed bid, including remarks at a Florida fund-raising dinner in which he called 47 percent of Americans overly dependent on the federal government.
“Our people have not changed,’’ Rubio said. “The vast majority of the American people are hard-working taxpayers who take responsibility for their families, go to work every day, they pay their mortgage on time, they volunteer in their community. What’s changed is the world around us.’’
The former Bay State governor didn’t address his critics, however. Speaking for about 15 minutes, Romney told a packed ballroom that America’s 21st Century fate is “not written in the stars.’’ And echoing former rival Rick Santorum’s argument earlier Friday, he pressed conservatives to retake control of their local and national political futures.
“In the end, we will win,’’ Romney said. “We will win just as we have won before, and for the same reason: because our cause is right … and just.’’