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Romney's CPAC Return Draws Interest, Questions

Romney's CPAC Return Draws Interest, Questions

By Scott Conroy - February 27, 2013

Despite his longtime up-and-down relationship with core elements of the Republican base, Mitt Romney has always been greeted warmly at the Conservative Political Action Conference -- the nation’s preeminent annual gathering of conservative activists.

Less than a month after he launched his first presidential campaign in 2007, the former Massachusetts governor topped a host of better-known candidates to win a preference poll among CPAC attendees.

A year later, he used the event to end his White House bid with a rousing defense of conservatism that won him plaudits from the largely disappointed conference-goers, many of whom were surprised by his withdrawal from the race.

Though no longer a candidate, Romney would go on to win the 2008 CPAC presidential beauty contest a few days later. He repeated the feat in 2009 and again during the height of the GOP primary fight in 2012, when his victory helped slow the momentum Rick Santorum had generated four days earlier by sweeping contests in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado.

While his political ambitions may be gone now, Romney is once again turning to CPAC for another lift. After nearly four months of hibernation following his defeat in November, Romney has chosen CPAC as the venue for his public re-emergence next month, when he is slated to address thousands of activists on the conference’s second day.

Romney and his former advisers have been silent on what he intends to say, but organizers don’t expect his speech merely to serve as a swan song.

Gregg Keller, who was national coalitions director of Romney’s first presidential run before assuming his current role as the American Conservative Union’s executive director, said expects the 2012 nominee’s address to be forward-looking.

“He’s going to have a lot of friends in that room, and there are going to be a lot of people who will appreciate the sacrifices he and his family made over the last several years,” Keller said. “But anyone who knows Gov. Romney either professionally or personally knows he’s not the kind of man who rests on his laurels. He has a constant energy about him, and he’s not the kind of person who’s going to withdraw from politics and give a big farewell at a CPAC speech.”

Romney has given no indication of his future plans, and while he may provide some hints during his first post-election interview Sunday with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, the tenor of his CPAC address will say much about what he intends to do in the coming years.

Despite a simmering controversy over organizers’ decision not to invite New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to speak at this year’s conference and an ongoing conflict with a pair of conservative gay rights groups, CPAC’s significance has never been greater. Officials expect this year’s crowd to exceed the estimated 10,000 activists who attended last year’s gathering. The event is moving from its old location at a Marriott hotel in Washington to a much larger convention center and hotel complex at National Harbor, located outside of D.C. along the Potomac River.

CPAC spokesperson Laura Rigas said that Romney’s speech is generating a particularly high level of interest among confirmed attendees. “We are excited that this is Gov. Romney’s first public appearance since the election,” she said.

As right-leaning thought leaders have conveyed an eagerness to move on from the short-lived “Romney era” of the Republican Party, the stakes for the former governor are high if he hopes to maintain some clout. The CPAC forum may give Romney his best opportunity to make the case that he has something to offer the cause as the GOP regroups from a stinging 2012 election cycle.

“My guess is he’s going to use the opportunity to stay a relevant figure in politics, frankly, and number two is, it’s a very safe crowd,” said Missouri-based Republican consultant Jeff Roe, who is slated to participate in a CPAC panel. “He ended up running his campaign on very conservative messaging, and he probably wants to stake that area as a place Republicans can’t sacrifice in the ongoing discussions on refurbishing the party’s brand.”

Romney’s generally positive relationship with CPAC over the years notwithstanding, the conference has not been roses for him in every instance. Despite winning the straw poll last year, the lasting headline from the event was the candidate’s assessment of himself as a “severely conservative” governor -- an off-key characterization that left many activists wondering if he was trying too hard to speak a right-leaning language that does not come naturally to him.

And Romney’s appearance at this year’s event has left some of the event’s participants scratching their heads. “I think a lot of people are confused by what he hopes to accomplish,” said one scheduled CPAC speaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t want to take a formal role as a candidate in the future, and he had never previously been a thought leader on conservative issues.”

Romney will have to contend for attention at CPAC with a long list of heavy-hitting Republicans, including prospective 2016 presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, and Paul Ryan, while Sarah Palin is sure to draw a big crowd for her address on the conference’s final day.

Though everyone knows CPAC is no longer Mitt Romney’s party, his speech next month will be key to shaping his legacy among conservative activists. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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