Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney sought to pass the torch of leadership in the GOP to a new generation of conservatives in his first major public speech since losing last year's election.
Romney, the failed candidate who challenged President Barack Obama in 2012, heralded a handful of Republican governors and his former running mate — Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan — as the next generation of GOP leadership. And he counseled party activists gathered here at the Conservative Political Action Conference to learn from his campaign's missteps.
"It is up to us to make sure that we learn from my mistakes, and from our mistakes, so that we can win the victories those people and this nation depend upon," Romney told a warmly supportive CPAC crowd.
"It’s fashionable in some circles to be pessimistic about America, about conservative solutions, about the Republican Party," he added. "I utterly reject that pessimism. We may not have carried the day last Nov. 7, but we haven’t lost the country we love, and we haven't lost our way."
The former Massachusetts governor has kept a deliberately low profile following his lopsided loss versus Obama last November.
Following a campaign in which he was caricatured as out of touch — an image reinforced by his comments about "47 percent" of Americans depending upon government — many Republicans have quickly looked past Romney, who seemed at risk of becoming relegated to footnote status within the GOP.
But Romney used his speech to pledge to remain involved in Republican politics.
"I am sorry that I will not be your president – but I will be your co-worker and I will stand shoulder to shoulder alongside you," he said. "In the end, we will win just as we have won before, and for the same reason: because our cause is just and it is right."
And Romney singled out a handful of Republicans in his speech who could become that next generation of winners.
He hailed South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (who introduced him), and Republican Govs. Rick Snyder (Mich.), Nathan Deal (Ga.), Scott Walker (Wis.), Susana Martinez (N.M.) and Brian Sandoval (Nev.), along with two governors who weren't invited to CPAC because of perceived apostasies against conservatism: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Romney made few references, aside from Ryan, to leaders in Congress. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Rand Paul, R-Ky., or Ted Cruz, R-Texas, did not earn a shout-out from the former GOP nominee.
CPAC has been an important gathering for Romney in the past. He twice won its influential straw poll, and ended his first bid for the Republican nomination at 2008's gathering. Romney called himself a "severely conservative" governor during his speech at CPAC in 2012, a description which Democrats turned against him in the general election.
Before this gathering of Republican stalwarts, Romney also weighed in on the looming question before the GOP, about whether it should moderate in some respects, or continue to hew to its conservative ideology.
He argued that a "conservative vision can attract a majority of Americans and form a governing coalition of renewal and reform."
It's unclear whether or when the public might expect to hear from again from Romney, who recently joined the executive committee of one of his sons' investment companies. But he struck a wistful note upon reflecting about his failed campaign.
"Thank you again for your help and support along our journey," he said. "Ann and I will treasure these memories all the days of our lives."