(CBS News) Speaker after speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference dwelled on the future of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, but for a brief moment on Friday afternoon, an echo of Republicans' past took the stage to account for his shortcomings.
2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, in his first public speech since losing November's election to President Obama, told the audience that, "my mistakes" aside, "I utterly reject pessimism."
Setbacks like the 2012 rout, Romney said, "prepare us for larger victories," but moving forward, it is "up to us to make sure we learn from our mistakes, my mistakes" to "make sure that we take back the nation, take back the White House."
"In the end," he said, "We'll win for the same reason we won before: because our cause is just and it is right."
"Of course I left the race disappointed that I didn't win," he added, "but I also left honored and humbled to represent the values we believe in."
"We haven't lost the country we love and we have not lost our way," Romney insisted. "We're a patriotic people - the heart of America is good."
Romney cited the example set by the nation's 30 Republican governors as evidence that "The conservative vision can attract the majority of Americans and form a governing coalition."
These governors are "winning elections," he said, "but more importantly, they're solving problems, big problems...they're able to reach across the aisle, offer innovative solutions, and then they're willing to take the heat."
Romney identified the GOP governors of blue and purple states as "the people we have to listen to," naming Govs. Chris Christie, R-N.J., and Bob McDonnell, R-Va., among others.
In a perceived snub, neither Christie nor McDonnell was invited to address CPAC this year. Many speculated that their defiance of conservative orthodoxy on issues like Medicaid and tax policy cost them a speaking slot at the conservative confab.
Romney was introduced by Gov. Nikki Haley, R-S.C., who initially declined an invitation to address the conference but reconsidered after being asked by Romney to introduce him.
Beyond the governors, Romney congratulated his former running mate, saying, "I applaud the clear and convincing voice of my friend Paul Ryan."
Ryan addressed CPAC on Friday morning, accusing Democrats of "blowing smoke" with their budget and again touting his own fiscal blueprint, which has attracted a cavalcade of detractors and admirers.
Romney closed his remarks with a warning about the emerging international order. "Over the span of the coming century," he warned, "America's preeminent position is not guaranteed," as a host of nations rise to challenge our global leadership.
The problem, Romney said is that the "other leading contenders for world leadership" don't support "freedom the way we understand it."
Our task, Romney said, is to ensure that America remains atop the community of nations by addressing our "mounting debt" and our "failing institutions"
And in that endeavor, Romney said, conservatives will have an ally in him: "I'm sorry I won't be your president, but I will be your coworker and I'll work shoulder-to-shoulder alongside you."
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