NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -– Mitt Romney couldn't help himself.
"As someone who just lost the last election, I'm probably not in the best position to chart the course for the next one," he said in his first major speech since losing the presidential election four months ago.
And then he proceeded to gently, politely, but ever so clearly, challenge some of the more right-wing elements within the Republican Party.
First he gave a subtle rebuke to the organizers who had invited him to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and who decided to exclude New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell because of a perceived lack of conservative bona fides.
"We particularly need, by the way, to hear from the governors from the blue and purple states, because those are the states we're going to have to win to be able to get back the Senate and the White House," Romney said.
He mentioned the names of several governors, starting with McDonnell, who has been dinged for raising taxes in a recent transportation deal, and including Christie as well. The New Jersey governor angered many conservatives by welcoming President Barack Obama to his state after Hurricane Sandy, and recently decided to accept the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare.
Romney also mentioned Ohio Gov. John Kasich, another Republican governor who is expanding Medicaid, but did not mention Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has also reversed course on the issue.
"These are the people we've got to listen to and make sure that their message is heard loud and clear across the country," Romney said of the governors he mentioned.
He also jumped back into the political debate within the Republican Party over America's role in the world.
Romney criticized Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) foreign policy views without mentioning him by name. Romney urged the GOP not to cede global influence to other powers, even citing the Vietnam War as an example of positive American global influence.
"Who came to the rescue of Europe when it faced its darkest hour and came to the rescue of others under the threat of tyranny, in Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Bosnia, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq? Whatever you think of these interventions, whatever, the impulse behind every single one of them was liberation, not conquest," Romney said. "In all of human history, there has never been a great power that has so often used that power to liberate others, to free the captives. This we must teach our children, and we must ourselves never forget."
The crowd in the large convention hall here at National Harbor applauded, but there are strong currents within the party moving away from the hawkish foreign policy views that have dominated the GOP for many years. Paul's recent filibuster of CIA Director John Brennan's appointment, over Obama's drone policy, has catapulted the Kentucky senator and his view of a less expansionist, less interventionist America into the national spotlight.
Paul's speech here at CPAC on Thursday captured the energy of the grassroots crowd, as young activists held signs and wore t-shirts bearing the slogan "Stand with Rand."
But Romney argued that "American leadership depends on a military so strong, so superior, that no one would think to engage it."
"What nation is the most philanthropic in the world, the first to bind up the wounds of the injured from hurricanes, tsunamis, and war?" he said.
Paul, by contrast, drew some of his largest cheers on Thursday with a forceful denunciation of foreign aid to countries like Egypt, arguing that any country whose citizens have stormed a U.S. embassy and burnt the U.S. flag does not deserve a penny more from American taxpayers.
Romney's remarks were punctuated on the front and back end with what, by his standards, amounted to emotional and reflective references to his unsuccessful run for the White House.
He walked on stage as his campaign theme song, Kid Rock's "Born Free," blared over the speakers, bringing back memories of the countless times he did that across the country throughout 2011 and 2012. The crowd greeted the former Massachusetts governor with a sustained standing ovation, and the moment seemed to overwhelm the always restrained Romney to some degree.
"You touched my heart again, thank you so very much," he said.
As Romney's remarks drew to a close, he offered up something of an apology to the crowd that he was unable to win the election last fall.
"Each of us in our own way will have to step up and meet our responsibility. I am sorry that I won't be your president, but I will be your co-worker and I will stand shoulder to shoulder alongside you," he said.
The crowd responded warmly with another long ovation, and with the election behind them, any concerns about Romney's conservative authenticity -– which was mocked openly by Texas Gov. Rick Perry in his speech on Thursday –- were irrelevant. What remained was admiration for Romney's genial and virtuous personality, mixed with regret that he failed to beat Obama.