Mitt Romney has a long and unique relationship with CPAC. In 2007, the former Massachusetts governor was a star, winning the CPAC straw poll as the conservative alternative to the more moderate front-runner John McCain. A year later, Romney used the venue to make the surprise announcement that he was dropping out of the race. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, who was tasked with introducing him, said last week on her radio show that she was given just a minute or two to rewrite her speech.
In 2009, with the fiery Tea Party movement on the rise, a Yoda-like Romney warned conservatives against giving in to anger; in 2010, as a slew of young politicians was about to be sent to Congress, Romney was well received as a seasoned statesmen; in 2011, angling for the GOP nomination again, he tossed out right-wing red meat about Saul Alinksy and socialism to keep Ricks Perry and Santorum at bay.
And last year, he won the CPAC straw poll again in the midst of a heated primary campaign against more right-wing candidates. (Some say the straw poll is easily rigged by campaigns who buy tickets for supporters.)
In other words, CPAC has been good to Romney, and vice versa. He even made a surprise appearance at a regional CPAC gathering during the height of the 2012 campaign because, he said, "I couldn't resist."
So it was no surprise today that when he strolled onto the stage here to Kid Rock's "Born Free" -- his signature song from the campaign -- the ballroom was packed, with activists on their feet, cameras out and flashing.
But instead of giving a special speech for an event that has been so good to him, Romney delivered a variation of his stump speech, recycling anecdotes and turns of phrases that anyone following the 2012 campaign grew tired of months ago.
"Typical empty Romney speech. No shock why he lost," wrote conservative columnist Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner, an official sponsor of CPAC. And it's not like Romney has been too busy to write a new speech.
Still, he had some interesting things to say.
“I’m sorry I won’t be your president, but I will be your co-worker and I’ll work shoulder-to-shoulder alongside you,” Romney told the conservative activists in the crowd. “I want to thank you again for your support and help along the journey.”
And Romney responded directly to voices in the GOP saying it needs a shake-up. "It’s fashionable in some circles to be pessimistic about America, about conservative solutions, about the Republican Party. 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," he said.
He can tell us if he's ended up being right when he comes back to CPAC next year.