As the Dow closed in on 7,000, a low it hasn't hit since the mid-'90s, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney took to the stage of the Conservative Political Action Committee Conference with a full-throated defense of the free market.
In an unmistakable signal of the path Romney hopes to chart out of the wilderness, the former presidential candidate exhorted his conservative followers to stay true to conservative principles.
"America's challenges are different from year to year, yes, but our defining principles remain the same," he said. "Conservatives don't enter into each new political era trying to figure out what we believe. Facing new and complex problems, we find answers in principles that endure."
Democrats would -- and certainly will -- restate Romney's prescription in simpler terms: More of the same.
Romney sounded the free-market trumpet as a solution for everything from the economic collapse to the health care crisis so that, he said, "America stays America."
He suggested: "Medicare should finally be reformed with a dose of free-market reality."
He ridiculed the notion, put forward by Obama during his speech to Congress, that children should have access to education from birth until their first job. That was wrong, Romney said, because it would be "universal preschool and universal college." If that prospect isn't frightening enough, he warned "there were hints as well of universal health care and a universal service corps. It all sounds very appealing, until you realize that these plans mean universal government. That model has never worked anywhere in the world."
Romney payed homage to the courts, which, he said, will be packed with activist judges who will "force their own biases on an unwilling nation."
Hanging the hopes of the Republican Party on his brand of free-market economics, Romney pegged the Democrats as out-of-touch big spenders. "Republicans wanted to stimulate the economy; Democrats wanted to stimulate the government," he said of the differences between the two parties' recovery plans.
The effectiveness of Romney's economic message is undermined, perhaps unfairly, by his appearance: the man couldn't look any more like a corporate raider if he was personally consulted by Richard Gere.
And so when he tells the crowd that "Democrats' plan to take away [workers'] rights is an insult to the dignity and common sense of working people," well, you might forgive the guy in the back of the room, emptying the trash, if he's a bit unsure who, precisely, is insulting whose common sense.
Then again, that guy's not Romney's target audience today. The CPAC audience has always been a receptive one, if not always fully ready to embrace him. In 2007, he won the presidential straw poll. Last year, in the very same room, Romney announced to the crowd that he was dropping his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Only, no one in the audience knew in advance, the consequence of the technologically arcane set-up of the hotel, where BlackBerry service was cut off in the lower ballroom. People in the audience - mainly frightened by the prospect of being stuck with a McCain candidacy - screamed "No!" and begged him to reconsider. Behind the curtains, Bay Buchanan wiped the moistness from her eyes. "This is rough," she told the Huffington Post, "very rough."
He's still a crowd favorite. Outside the halls, attendees were raving about the qualifications Romney could bring to the ticket, one calling him the best hope for 2012.
"He is the only guy who can legitimately run against Obama," said Jason Persinger, who had trekked from Ohio to take in the CPAC weekend. "With McCain running... a lot of people wanted him to pick Romney as his vice president. Considering where the economy is, he would have fared better."
Others were equally convinced. "Absolutely, he would have been our nominee," if the economic situation was then what it is now, said a 48-year-old conservative businessman named Dan from New Jersey.
Though Romney had carried the 2007 straw poll, his conservative credentials had still been in question. He was still, after all, a former Massachusetts governor.
David Keene, the conference organizer, put it best in his introduction of Romney. "Just as we realized that he was one of us," he said, "he decided to go back to the private sector and not pursue the presidential nominee."
"He is more important to us today than he was last year," offered Keene. "We didn't know then, because it was before the economic collapse, just how important the values...Mitt Romney had would be to our movement."
John Stortstrom, executive director of the Maryland Federation of College Republicans, seconded Keene. "I give Mitt a little bit of leverage," said Stortstrom. "He's from Massachusetts. And if you're from a blue state and aren't 100 percent conservative that's okay. With McCain it was the opposite. He's out there from Arizona," where, presumably, it's not okay to buck the party.
And yet, reservations persisted. Romney, observers noted, seemed much more at ease addressing the crowd, as opposed to the 2008 election when, at times, his speeches seemed like a robotic regurgitation of Republican talking points. But his pedigree remains problematic for some. One attendee wondered: "Do we want a CEO who laid off thousands of workers?"
And while conservatives are more than willing to admit the former governor's advantageous perch for the Republican nomination, not all are ready to proclaim him one of their own.
"Romney is a good man who did not run a particularly good campaign last time, but he also knows that very few Republicans get the nomination on the first try, including Reagan, Bush 41, Dole and McCain. So you would have to consider Romney as a serious contender for 2012," said Craig Shirley, a longtime Republican strategist and head of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs. "If he is a member of the family, it is through adoption and not birthright."
Or, following Bobby Jindal's political bruising this week, through process of elimination.
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